Facts of the Case
Prior to the commencement of voir dire in a Virginia state court trial of Willie Lloyd Turner, a black defendant, on charges including capital murder, the judge refused a defense request to question the prospective jurors specifically as to whether the difference in races of the defendant and the victim, who was white, would prejudice the jurors. Instead, the trial judge only questioned the prospective jurors generally as to whether they knew of any reason why they could not render a fair and impartial verdict, at a time when the jurors had no way of knowing the victim was white. Eventually, the jury which was empaneled convicted the defendant on all charges including capital murder, and, in a separate capital sentencing hearing, recommended the defendant be sentenced to death, a recommendation the trial judge accepted. After unsuccessful attempts in earlier proceedings to overturn the verdict, the defendant sought habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, arguing that the trial judge’s refusal to ask prospective jurors about their racial attitudes deprived him of a right to a fair trial. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of habeas corpus, expressing the view that there were no special circumstances in the case to justify such voir dire questioning, due to either the nature of the crime or punishment itself, or the fact that the defendant was black and the victim was white. The United States Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari.
In a capital case involving an interracial crime, is the defendant entitled to have potential jurors informed of the victim’s race and questioned about any potential racial biases?
Yes. Justice Byron R. White delivered the opinion for the 7-2 majority. The Court held that special circumstance[s] could create a significant likelihood that a trial judge’s failure to question potential jurors about racial prejudice leads to a biased jury. In this case, where an interracial murder was charged as a capital offense, the Court held that the facts amounted to one of those special circumstances. The Court reasoned that jurors in capital cases have broader discretion that makes it easier to act, even if subtly, with racial prejudice. This discretion, coupled with the finality of a death sentence, entitles defendants in interracial capital cases to inform prospective jurors of the victim’s race and question them about any potential racial bias.Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which he argued that the majority should have overturned Turner’s death sentence rather than vacating it. In his separate opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that the defendant should retain the right to inform prospective jurors of the race of the victim and inquire about potential racial biases in any case that involved a violent interracial crime. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. joined in the opinion.Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. wrote a dissenting opinion in which he warned that the majority’s new rule would drastically increase the number of death row prisoners filing habeas petitions without providing them any new protections. Justice William H. Rehnquist joined in the opinion.
- Citation: 476 US 28 (1986)
- Argued: Dec 12, 1985
- Decided Apr 30, 1986