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United States of America v. Ronell Wilson

May 2, 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 Defendant Ronell Wilson's motion to strike Juror #446 and Juror #505 for cause. For the reasons set forth below, Wilson's motion as to Juror #446 is DENIED; his motion as to Juror #505 is GRANTED.

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 #446

Wilson argues that Juror #446 is substantially impaired and therefore must be struck for cause because: (1) she cannot meaningfully consider mitigating evidence concerning Wilson's childhood; (2) she did not understand the difference between a defendant's mental state for purposes of determining guilt and for imposing punishment; and (3) the court did not pose a question concerning the pecuniary gain statutory aggravating factor. The Government opposes this motion, maintaining that Juror #446 repeatedly and consistently stated that she could consider all relevant mitigation evidence, and that although she may have initially been confused about the implications of a defendant's mental condition, she ultimately understood and declared her ability to consider such evidence in making her punishment decision. As to Wilson's request that the court question Juror #446 on pecuniary gain, the Government contends that this would confuse the juror and be of little value, particularly because the court already inquires about many case-specific facts.

B.Juror #505

Wilson moves to strike Juror #505 because at the end of voir dire, he unequivocally stated that he could not consider childhood experiences as a mitigating factor in making his punishment determination where the defendant was twenty years old at the time of the crime. The Government argues in response that Juror #505's answer reflects a belief in accountability, and does not undermine his other comments at voir dire that demonstrate a willingness to consider all forms of mitigation evidence, including childhood experiences.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A.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 Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 424 (1985)).

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." United States v. Basciano, No. 05-CR-060 (NGG), 2011 WL 4574925, at *1 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 11, 2011).

B. Consideration of Mitigation Evidence

To be a qualified juror in a capital case, a person must, among other things, be open to considering relevant mitigation evidence. "[T]he sentencer [may not] refuse to consider, as a matter of law, any relevant mitigating evidence. . . . The sentencer . . . may determine the weight to be given relevant mitigating evidence[, b]ut [it] may not give it no weight by excluding such evidence from [its] consideration." Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 113-14 (1982) (emphasis in original); see also 18 U.S.C. ยง 3592(a) ("In determining whether a sentence of death is to be imposed on a defendant, the finder of fact shall consider any mitigating factor . . . ." (emphasis added)); cf. Morgan, 504 U.S. at 729 (stating that a defendant may challenge for cause a "juror who will automatically vote for the death penalty in every case [because he] will fail in good faith to consider the evidence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances as the instructions require him to do"). Similarly, a death-eligible defendant is entitled to ...


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