Lockhart v. McCree

LOCATION: Court in Ouachita County

DOCKET NO.: 84-1865
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 476 US 162 (1986)
ARGUED: Jan 13, 1986
DECIDED: May 05, 1986

John Steven Clark - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Samuel R. Gross - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

During the capital trial of Ardia McCree, a judge removed prospective jurors who stated that under no circumstances would they be able to impose the death penalty. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the judge's actions violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. A.L. Lockhart, the director of the Arkansas Department of Correction, appealed this decision to the Supreme Court.


During a capital trial does the Constitution prohibit the removal of prospective jurors whose opposition to the death penalty is so strong that it would prevent or substantially impair the performance of their duties at the sentencing phase of the trial?

Media for Lockhart v. McCree

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 13, 1986 in Lockhart v. McCree

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in Lockhart against McCree.

Mr. Attorney General, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

John Steven Clark:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

The facts simply stated are these: Ardia McCree on Valentine's Day of 1978, in the course of robbing La Tienda Gift Shop and Service Station, killed Evelyn Roughton, the owner operator, with a shotgun blast to her face.

He was charged with capital felony murder.

The state sought the death penalty.

McCree was tried before a jury which was qualified in accordance with Witherspoon and nine prospective jurors who would not consider the full range of punishments to include the death penalty were removed for cause.

McCree was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole.

The conviction was appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court and was affirmed.

William H. Rehnquist:

General Clark, where in Arkansas was McCree tried?

John Steven Clark:

He was tried in Ouachita County, Justice Rehnquist, where the crime was committed, in Camden, Arkansas.

William H. Rehnquist:

And where did the venire come from, from a particular state judicial circuit in that case?

John Steven Clark:

It is the state judicial district which comprises two counties, Union County and Ouachita County, population of about 75,000 together.

Post conviction relief was denied to Mr. McCree.

In 1980 he filed his petition for habeas relief, which leads us to this Court today.

I'll discuss the issues of impartiality and then cross section as raised by Mr. McCree, but before I undertake to analyze McCree's particular constitutional claims I think it's important that we put this case in its perspective.

This case may be one of the most important criminal cases this Court will consider this term, for if the decision below is affirmed the potential is that some 90 percent of those inmates who comprise death row, numbering 1500, may have to be retried; that in 33 of the 37 states that allow for capital punishment their statutes may have to be changed through special sessions; and that some 3,000 to 5,000 inmates minimally who were charged with capital offenses but got sentences of less than death, either life without or life imprisonment, may potentially be tried again.

I believe it's essential for those claims--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

General Clark, I would assume that would only be if such a holding were made retroactive.

John Steven Clark:

--Yes, Your Honor.

In putting these claims in perspective, McCree's basic complaint is that Witherspoon excludibles were barred from potential membership on the jury that heard the guilt phase of his trial.

Factually, those nine prospective jurors were excluded due to the requirements of two entirely neutral and unassailable features of Arkansas state law.

The first feature is the state of Arkansas has determined that in criminal cases the issue of guilt and innocence should be decided by the same jury, as we believe that the jury acts as a safeguard, if you will, in the criminal justice establishment between the defendant and that establishment: that the policy and the law that require that has been the policy in our state for more than seven decades.

Secondly, the state of Arkansas naturally decided to exercise its option, when granted by Witherspoon, to prevent any juror from determining sentence who said he would, explicitly vowed, that he would under no circumstances follow state law, which included the penalty of death.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

General Clark, may I inquire about this matter?

Does it make any difference here that, after the state had excused these jurors for cause under Witherspoon, that it later waived its request for the death penalty?

John Steven Clark:

Your Honor, I don't think that it makes a difference.

The state has--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Does that leave open for manipulation by the state in a given case an option to excuse jurors under Witherspoon and then plan all along to waive a request for the death penalty?

John Steven Clark:

--Your Honor, I don't think it was the intent of the state to leave open an option to procedurally come back and attempt to bar this effort.