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United States of America v. Ronell Wilson

May 8, 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 #592 for cause. For the reasons set forth below, 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.

Wilson moves to strike Juror #592 on the ground that he is substantially impaired because he cannot meaningfully consider mitigation evidence and is unable to properly consider a life sentence. Specifically, Wilson argues that the issue of his "mental state" at the time of the crime "dominated" this juror's thinking, as reflected by Juror #592's statement that if Wilson knew his victims were police officers, he (Juror #592) would be "very prone" to imposing the death penalty unless there were "extenuating circumstances." The Government opposes, contending that the totality of Juror #592's responses indicate that he can properly weigh mitigating factors,and that his indication that he might "lean" toward the death penalty in a particular circumstance is not disqualifying.

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. § 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 have the jury "consider[], as a mitigating factor, any aspect of [his] character or record and any circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death." Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 604 (1978) (emphasis removed).

III. DISCUSSION

Wilson has moved to strike Juror #592 for cause. That motion is denied.

To begin, Juror #592's questionnaire depicts a juror able to meaningfully consider mitigation evidence and to impose a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release. For instance, when asked to "describe in detail [his] views and beliefs about the penalty of life in prison without the possibility of release as opposed to the death penalty for someone who killed two police officers," Juror #592 wrote, "Both are harsh punishments for violent behavior justifiable in extreme cases." (Questionnaire Response #41.) When asked to detail "[w]hat role, if any . . . childhood experiences play in a person's behavior and choices as an adult," Juror #592 stated, "Quite a bit," and affirmed that "such information [should] be considered when making a decision about the death penalty versus life without the possibility of release." (Id. #46(a), (b).) Moreover, Juror #592 indicated in his questionnaire that he is "willing to consider both possible sentences in a case involving the intentional ...


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