RESPONDENT: Johnny Paul Witt
LOCATION: United States Courthouse
DOCKET NO.: 83-1427
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
CITATION: 469 US 412 (1985)
ARGUED: Oct 02, 1984
DECIDED: Jan 21, 1985
Robert J. Landry - on behalf of Petitioner
William C. Mclain - on behalf of Respondent
Facts of the case
Media for Louie L. Wainwright, Secretary, Florida, Dept of Corrections v. Johnny Paul Witt
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 02, 1984 in Louie L. Wainwright, Secretary, Florida, Dept of Corrections v. Johnny Paul Witt
Warren E. Burger:
Mr. Landry, I think you may proceed whenever you're ready.
Robert J. Landry:
Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, the instant case presents the opportunity for this Court to address and decide for the first time the standard of review which should be made by Federal habeas corpus concerning Witherspoon claims brought by state prisoners in habeas corpus actions.
The decision of the lower court, we believe, is erroneous and must be reversed because it is not mandated by, in our belief, to be consistent with prior Supreme Court decisions.
It fails to accord the appropriate deference to state court determinations of fact, as required by 2254 D.
It fails to accord the respect to the federal district court fact-finding obligations of district judges under rule 52, and announces a mechanistic policy which is more conducive to adherence to form rather than substance.
We would ask the Court to provide much-needed clarification to the lower courts in this regard by reiterating that the position of Witherspoon and his progeny is that a prospective juror may be excused for cause when his capital punishment views are such that he is unable or unwilling to follow along in the court's instruction; that there is no necessary formula to be employed either by the questioner or by the answer given by the prospective juror; that a juror is required to assure the trial judge that he can follow the law or else he will be excused for cause based on his views; and that because of the unique advantage occupied by the trial judge in making the determinations as to what the jury is saying and means, that wide latitude should be given his determinations.
Very briefly, the facts in this case which brought this to a head, Johnny Paul Witt was tried and convicted of the first degree murder of Jonathan Kushner and received a sentence of death.
During the voir dire examination of one of the jurors, Juror Colby, the prosecutor inquired as to whether or not the juror had any particular personal beliefs against capital punishment.
The juror responded that she had some personal views and the prosecutor followed that up with a series of questions:
First: Would that interfere with you sitting as a juror in this case?
I'm afraid it would.
You are afraid it would?
Robert J. Landry:
Would it interfere with your judging the guilt or innocence of the defendant in this case?
Robert J. Landry:
I think so.
You think it would?
Robert J. Landry:
I think it would.
At this point the prosecutor moved to excuse the juror for cause.
The defendant neither objected to the removal nor asked to give any additional clarifying or rehabilitative questions of the juror, and the trial court granted the prosecutor's motion to step down.
We believe that the appropriate test for habeas corpus in reviewing collateral attacks, Witherspoon claims, is the presumption of correctness outlined in 2254 D of section Title 28.
The policy reasons for this include the traditional values of comedy and federalism which have been enunciated in previous proceedings in this Court.
Going back to Stone v. Powell, this Court has announced that state judges are fully capable of applying constitutional standards, and they take the same oath to uphold the Constitution as do the federal judges.
It would emphasize the importance of the trial as a main event in a scheme of the criminal justice system and not just a preliminary round or a trial run for a never-ending cycle of appeals and post-conviction motions.
It would develop the concept of finality for litigation.
Instead of having successive repetitive review to achieve some never-ending idea that a better result will be achieved, the courts will recognize that successive review merely affords an opportunity for different results.
And, finally, it would be consistent with the prior decisions of this Court which have most recently recognized the importance that should be given to trial judges in making their determinations on matters of fact which they are better equipped to resolve.
Most of these values which I've just enunciated, of course, are most adequately and demonstrated most forcefully in this Court in the recent opinion of Patton v. Young which was decided two or three months ago.
In that case the Court was called upon to decide whether or not the trial judge's determination or a federal court's determination as to whether a juror was biased because of pretrial prejudicial publicity, and there had been a disagreement among the state court and the federal courts about that.
And this Court ruled that because of the greater opportunity of a trial judge to observe the demeanor and credibility of a juror in responding to leading questions, listening to the tone of the responses given, that greater deference should be given to the trial judge's determination.
William J. Brennan, Jr.:
Exactly what findings of fact did the trial judge make here?