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United States v. Wilson

November 17, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garaufis, District Judge


This court is currently conducting voir dire in a case in which the Government seeks the death penalty against Ronell Wilson ("Wilson") based on allegations that include the murder of two law enforcement officers. Before the court are Wilson's motion to have Jurors 3, 394, and 431 excluded for cause and the Government's motion to have Juror 517 excluded for cause. The factual background and much of the legal background applicable to these motions were set forth in this court's Orders dated October 20 and 23 and November 5, 6, and 13, 14, and 15, 2006. For the reasons set forth below, Wilson's motions are GRANTED with respect to Jurors 3 and 431 and DENIED with respect to Juror 394 and the Government's motion is GRANTED. Jurors 3, 431, and 517 are therefore excluded for cause and Juror 394 is qualified to serve.

I. Wilson's Motions

A. Juror 3

Wilson moved to have Juror 3 excluded for cause, arguing that she would not consider evidence of mitigating factors offered by Wilson in the penalty phase of this case, if any. (Tr. at 139-40, 3682; Def. Challenge Juror 3 at 4.) That motion is granted.

The Supreme Court has held that jurors may not "refuse to consider, as a matter of law, any relevant mitigating evidence. [They] may determine the weight to be given relevant mitigating evidence. But they may not give it no weight by excluding such evidence from their consideration." Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 114-115 (1982).

In her questionnaire, this juror wrote, "I believe if you take a life, your life can be taken." (Answer to Question 59.) She also wrote that her religion's teaching regarding the death penalty was, "Life for Life." (Answers to Questions 70(a).) When asked whether she agreed with this teaching, she wrote, "Your life for the life you took." (Answers to Questions 70(b).) Because those answers suggested that Juror 3 might vote to impose the death penalty automatically upon a defendant found guilty of murder -- without considering factors mitigating against imposition of the death penalty -- I asked her, "Do you have some idea of how you would approach the issue of whether someone should be put to death or serve life in prison without the opportunity to be released?" (Tr. at 130.) She answered, "Well, I would think it would have to do with the severity of whatever they are charged with. I have to think about that and everything that went into it, and then make a decision on how strong or how ferocious or whatever, whatever was done, and how it was done and the thinking in how it was done. I'll take all that into consideration." (Id.)

After hearing this answer, Wilson became concerned that Juror 3 would refuse to consider mitigating evidence. (Id. at 133.) I therefore questioned this juror further as follows:

Q: Now, in the penalty phase, making your decision on the penalty, could you consider life without the possibility of release, taking all the factors into consideration, including facts about the defendant's background, personal background, as well as the facts surrounding the crime?

A: I don't see, really, [t]hat the background has that much to do with it, what they did.

Q: Well, we're beyond the point of what they did.

A: Yes.

Q: It's been proven at that point that the person did this crime.

A: Yes.

Q: But the question now for the jury that has to make a legal and moral judgment as to which penalty to impose in that situation, you would be asked to consider many things, and among them, factors about the background of the defendant. Would you be able to take those into consideration in deciding what the penalty ought to be for that defendant along with everything else that you are required to consider or permitted to consider?

A: Yes.

Q: In that circumstance, could you, based upon considering those factors along with any other factors that you are allowed to consider, could you, based on all those factors, envision voting for a sentence of life in prison without possibility of release?

A: Yes. (Id. at 138-39.)

Based on these answers, Wilson argued that this juror was not willing to consider mitigating evidence. (Id. at 146-47.) Wilson recognized that this juror made a statement to the contrary, however, and argued that this court should give more credence to the statements indicating an unwillingness to consider mitigation:

When a federal district court judge asks a juror, who really doesn't understand principles of law or the difference between a trial or a penalty phase, whether she . . . can consider all of the circumstances . . . she's extrapolating [that] as a question of whether she can be fair, and her response to that is, "Yes, I can be fair. I can consider everything." But when she volunteers, in response to a direct question whether or not she can consider a defendant's background in making the decision of life or death, and she says she doesn't see where this has anything to do with the mitigation process, [she cannot serve under Supreme Court case law.] (Id.)

Because this court was not certain whether Juror 3 was in fact unwilling or unable to consider mitigation evidence, that Juror was invited back for further voir dire. Upon her return, she was questioned as follows:

Q: As a juror when you are assessing the evidence during a penalty phase, what would you like to know about the background of the defendant or the circumstances of the crime that might help you in deciding which is the more appropriate penalty? What would you like to know?

A: Well, in this case I guess you want to know how the defendant felt about the people in general, if they didn't like him or just, you know, how people is, I don't like certain people and, you know, things like that I like to know. If something like that had something to do why he do what he do. You understand?

Q: It's about something that he's thinking in his mind?

A: Maybe I don't like certain things, when this comes up, I just don't think about it, I just do because I don't really like maybe what these people stand for. Sometimes that has ...

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