Turner v. Murray

LOCATION: Southhampton County Circuit Court

DOCKET NO.: 84-6646
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 476 US 28 (1986)
ARGUED: Dec 12, 1985
DECIDED: Apr 30, 1986

James E. Kulp - on behalf of the respondent
J. Lloyd Snook, III - on behalf of the petitioner

Facts of the case

In July 1978, Willie Lloyd Turner entered a jewelry store and killed the proprietor. Turner was disarmed, arrested, and charged with capital murder. During the jury selection process, Turner's counsel requested that the trial judge ask potential jurors if they would be biased by the fact that Turner was black while the victim was white. The judge declined to ask the question regarding racial prejudice and instead asked the prospective jurors if they thought that they would be able to be impartial and fair. Turner was convicted and sentenced to death.

After exhausting his appellate options at the state level, Turner filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal district court. Because the facts of the case "did not suggest a significant likelihood that racial prejudice might [have] infect[ed the defendant's] trial," the district court held that the trial judge's refusal to question potential jurors about racial prejudice was not unconstitutional. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed.


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?

Media for Turner v. Murray

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 12, 1985 in Turner v. Murray

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in Turner against the Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Mr. Snook, I think you may proceed whenever you are ready.

J. Lloyd Snook, III:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, this case presents the question of whether Willie Turner was denied his right to be tried by an impartial jury in his capital murder case where the trial judge refused to allow voir dire about whether the fact that Turner is black and his victim was white would cause prospective jurors to be prejudiced against him.

In this case, Turner's trial counsel asked the judge at trial, before trial to tell the jury that Turner was black, that his victim was white, and to ask them whether these facts would prejudice you against Willie Lloyd Turner.

The trial court refused, saying simply Question 10, which is the question that we are talking about here, has been ruled on by the Supreme Court.

I am not going to ask that.

Now, it is important to note that counsel had just immediately before this discussion of voir dire finished discussing with the court the claim that the death penalty was discriminatorily applied against blacks, and particularly against blacks who have killed whites.

The court had refused any evidence or any hearing, but evidence had been proffered to that effect, and I think it is safe to say that the court had that evidence and that contention firmly in mind at the time.

This Court has held in Ristaino versus Ross that these kinds of claims are to be adjudicated essentially on a case by case analysis in which the question is whether there are special circumstances about the crime that cause one to believe that there is a need for such voir dire.

One of our points is that the special circumstances need not be the facts of the case, the facts of the crime or the murder as much as they may also include the facts surrounding the prosecutions, such as in this case, since the facts of the capital murder statute, the nature of the statute under which the prosecution is being conducted, and therefore we have argued that capital murder, the fact of a capital murder prosecution itself is one of those special circumstances that this Court ought to find requires such voir dire.

We have addressed all of these issues fully in our briefs, which we incorporate into this argument by reference, but I would like to address one thing in particular in this argument that we have not really focused on before.

That is exactly the scope of a rule that we would suggest that this Court could or should make in such a case.

Now, there is in this Court's jurisprudence on voir dire issues a tension between the virtue of clarity on the one hand that comes with per se rules and on the other hand the flexibility that comes with the discretionary approach or leaving it all to the discretion of the trial court.

This Court need not decide whether a state must apply a bright line rule in such a case.

Some states have.

Georgia has, for example, in capital murder cases.

Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania have in other kinds of cases.

You could continue to rely on Ristaino versus Ross's discretion-based analysis provided that you make clear that the discretion must be exercised in a capital case with due regard for the special circumstances of a capital case.

For example, due regard for the greater discretion that the jury is given in a capital case than was given in Ristaino versus Ross or Rosales-Lopez versus United States or the other cases in which this Court has considered this issue.

The discretion given to a jury in Virginia to impose the death sentence is basically unlimited once an aggravating circumstance has been found.

The Virginia statute is essentially identical to the Georgia statue in this regard, so that the degree of discretion that you found and noted in Zant versus Stevens applies absolutely in this case as well.

And the second thing that is important about capital cases is the possibility that racial prejudice will manifest itself in the death and life decision, and for that we have suggested that the history of racial discrimination and the history of the discriminatory application in this country is evidence if not necessarily evidence high enough to allow us to argue to you that the entire statutory scheme should be invalidated, at least high enough to suggest that in the words of Justice White in Rosales-Lopez, that there is a substantial... a more substantial indication of a likelihood of racial prejudice in this kind of case.

Warren E. Burger:

Suppose the defendant, Mr. Snook, is Puerto Rican.

J. Lloyd Snook, III:

Well, Your Honor, I--

Warren E. Burger:

You would ask the same question then?

J. Lloyd Snook, III:

--Your Honor, I would argue in this particular case all that we are presenting you with is the black on white situation, and we have--

Warren E. Burger:

I am asking you a hypothetical question.

J. Lloyd Snook, III:

--I understanding.

Warren E. Burger:

Because the question you are putting may answer the other question.

J. Lloyd Snook, III:

I understand.