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United States of America v. Ronell Wilson

April 30, 2013

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
RONELL WILSON,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nicholas G. Garaufis, United States District Judge.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Before the court is the Government's motion to strike Juror #322 for cause and Defendant Ronell Wilson's motion to strike Juror #358 for cause. For the reasons set forth below, the Government's motion is GRANTED and Wilson's motion is DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND*fn1

The court is currently conducting oral voir dire to select a jury that will decide whether Wilson will be sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of release at an upcoming penalty phase re-trial scheduled to begin on June 24, 2013.

A.Juror #322

The Government moves to strike Juror #322 for cause on the ground that his answers given at voir dire sharply contrast those provided in his questionnaire, preventing the parties from being able to know whether he would meaningfully consider both possible sentences, leaving the court with no confidence that he could follow its instructions to do just that. Wilson opposes, maintaining that some of Juror #322's questionnaire responses are consistent with those given at voir dire, and that although Juror #322 may oppose the death penalty generally, he can put aside this opposition aside and meaningfully consider imposing both possible penalties.

B.Juror #358

Wilson challenges Juror #358, claiming that she in unqualified to serve because when the court asked her whether she believed that there was a presumption in favor of the death penalty for individuals who commit intentional murder, she answered in the affirmative. The Government argues that Juror #358 ensured that, if instructed to the contrary, she could put aside any personal belief regarding presumptions and that, taken as a whole, the record reflects that Juror #358 is a qualified juror.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A. Ability to Follow the Court's Instructions

A prospective juror may be dismissed for cause where her "inconsistent positions" make it "unlikely that she w[ill] follow[] the court's instructions if empaneled." United States v. Fell, 531 F.3d 197, 216 (2d Cir. 2008). This is because "'there will be situations where the trial judge is left with the definite impression that a prospective juror would be unable to faithfully and impartially apply the law. This is why deference must be paid to the trial judge who sees and hears the juror.'" Id. at 211 (quoting Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. at 424-26 (1985)). A prospective juror may be stuck on these grounds "even when the juror 'indicated some degree of willingness to put aside personal biases,'" id. at 213 (citation omitted), since "a juror's voir dire responses that are ambiguous or reveal considerable confusion may demonstrate substantial impairment," id. at 215. See also Uttecht v. Brown, 551 U.S. 1, 18 (2007) ("[A juror's] assurances that he would consider imposing the death penalty and would follow the law do not overcome the reasonable inference from his other statements that in fact he would be substantially impaired in this case . . . .").

B. Life Qualification

"[T]he proper standard for determining when a prospective juror may be excused for cause because of his or her views on capital punishment . . . is whether the juror's views would 'prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath.'" Morgan v. Illinois, 504 U.S. 719, 728 (1992) (quoting Witt, 469 U.S. at 424).

A defendant may challenge for cause "[a] juror who will automatically vote for the death penalty in every case [because that means he] will fail in good faith to consider the evidence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances as the instructions require him to do." Id. at 729. This is often referred to as the requirement that a juror be "life-qualified." ...


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