Gray v. Mississippi

PETITIONER: David Randolph Gray
RESPONDENT: Mississippi
LOCATION: Harrison County Court

DOCKET NO.: 85-5454
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Mississippi

CITATION: 481 US 648 (1987)
ARGUED: Nov 12, 1986
DECIDED: May 18, 1987
GRANTED: Feb 24, 1986

Andru H. Volinsky - on behalf of Petitioner
Marvin L. White, Jr. - on behalf of Respondent

Facts of the case

On June 3, 1982, Attina Cannaday, David Gray, and Dawn Bushart woke up Ronald Wojcik and Sandra Sowash in their Biloxi apartment and forced them to leave at knifepoint. They brought Wojcik and Sowash in Wojcik’s van to a remote wooded area. Grey raped Sowash at knifepoint in the van, but she later escaped. At sunrise, Ronald Wojcik’s body was found with nineteen stab wounds to the head, hands, upper body, and back. Later that month, David Randolph Gray was indicted in Harrison County, Mississippi on a capital charge for the stabbing death of Ronald Wojcik while committing the felony of kidnapping.

During the jury selection process, the potential jurors were questioned individually. After the judge denied the prosecutor’s for-cause motions, the prosecutor used peremptory challenges to remove eight panel members who expressed any degree of uncertainty in their ability to cast a vote in a case potentially involving the death penalty. The voir dire oath of panelist H.C. Bounds was confused, but she ultimately stated that she was capable of voting to impose the death penalty. The judge eventually excused Bounds for cause, however, implying that he had improperly denied the prosecutor the use of for-cause motions for the other panelists.

The jury convicted Gray of capital murder and sentenced him to death. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Mississippi divided on whether Gray’s death sentence was invalid because the exclusion of Bounds violated Gray’s right to a fair and impartial jury. It ultimately affirmed Gray’s sentence despite the violation of Mississippi state procedure created by the trial court’s failure to follow voir dire guidelines in its dismissal of Bounds.


Did the Supreme Court of Mississippi err in affirming Gray’s death sentence by holding that the excusal of a juror was a harmless error and not a violation of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments?

Media for Gray v. Mississippi

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 12, 1986 in Gray v. Mississippi

William H. Rehnquist:

You may begin whenever you're ready, Mr. Volinsky.

Andru H. Volinsky:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The Court's decision in this case, whether it be based on a legal error, a narrow constitutional holding, or a very broad constitutional holding, must be based on an understanding of the sequence of events of voir dire--

William H. Rehnquist:

Let me ask you one question, Mr. Volinsky, just based on your first sentence, if I may.

Andru H. Volinsky:

--Right out of the box.

William H. Rehnquist:

You say the Court's holding could be based on a legal error, on a narrow constitutional ground, or on a broad constitutional ground.

Is there some non-constitutional ground on which we could reverse the Supreme Court of Mississippi here?

Andru H. Volinsky:

That's in essence what I meant with the legal error.

That ground... if the Court will recall, the basis that the Mississippi Supreme Court had for finding this error harmless was that the Mississippi Supreme Court said the trial judge had erred in previous rulings.

The Mississippi Supreme Court also went on to find that the trial judge had made his previous Witherspoon rulings based on the trial judge's belief that the jurors weren't being sincere with him when they said that they had scruples that would prevent their being seated in the case.

In finding that the trial judge didn't believe them and then going on to say, well, they shouldn't have been excused, the Mississippi Supreme Court misunderstood Witt.

I think to make sense Witt has to be read to mean that jurors should only be excused if they honestly maintain scruples that prevent or substantially impair them.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, then if that is your example of legal error, which I believe was one of the things, that itself would be a constitutional ground, wouldn't it?

Andru H. Volinsky:

I don't want to argue with the Court about whether it should be legal or constitutional.

I think what Mississippi did is misunderstand Witt in that one respect, and I think without going into a very broad analysis of Davis this Court can say: You misunderstood Witt; if the trial court did not believe those earlier jurors, he wasn't wrong, and therefore we don't even get to this offsetting penalties concept.

This Court also must recognize, in reaching its conclusion, the clear distinction between the jury function of fact finding in the guilt-innocence phase and the discretionary function involved in determining whether a particular community, a particular community, believes that the appropriate sentence in a particular case is death.

The voir dire in this case was an alternating type voir dire.

It didn't alternate on each particular juror, but alternated on the panels.

To start with, twelve jurors were seated, they were questioned by the prosecutor.

He exercised some peremptory challenges, one juror was excused for cause.

They were replaced.

The prosecutor stayed on his feet, questioned again until he was satisfied with the twelve in the box.

They were then passed over to the defense lawyer.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Is that the standard Mississippi procedure?

Andru H. Volinsky:

I believe it is, although my experience is--

Harry A. Blackmun:

You're from New Hampshire.

Andru H. Volinsky:

--I'm from New Hampshire, Your Honor.

From my understanding, it is commonly followed.

The defense would then question.

Then any replacement jurors would be requestioned by the prosecutor.