Uttecht v. Brown

PETITIONER: Jeffrey Uttecht, Superintendent, Washington State Penitentiary
RESPONDENT: Cal Coburn Brown
LOCATION: Juneau-Douglas High School

DOCKET NO.: 06-413
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 551 US 1 (2007)
GRANTED: Jan 12, 2007
ARGUED: Apr 17, 2007
DECIDED: Jun 04, 2007

John J. Samson -
Michael R. Dreeben -
Suzanne Lee Elliott - on behalf of Respondent

Facts of the case

A Washington State jury sentenced Cal Brown to death for murder. Brown protested that unfair jury selection had guaranteed a "verdict of death." One potential juror who expressed willingness to impose the death penalty only in "severe situations" was dismissed by the judge for cause. The Washington Supreme Court upheld the dismissal.

Brown appealed first to a federal district court and then to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which ruled that the dismissed juror was not "substantially impaired" in his ability to follow the law. Supreme Court precedent required that jurors only be dismissed if their personal views prevent them from performing their duties. The prosecution unsuccessfully petitioned for the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case en banc on the ground that the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act required appeals courts to give deference to trial judges' evaluations of jurors.


Did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit fail to give proper deference to a trial judge's dismissal of a juror on the grounds that he could not carry out the duties of a juror in a capital sentencing case?

Media for Uttecht v. Brown

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 17, 2007 in Uttecht v. Brown

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 04, 2007 in Uttecht v. Brown

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has our opinion this morning in case No. 06-413, Uttecht versus Brown.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Respondent Cal Coburn Brown was convicted in Washington State Court of committing aggravated first-degree murder after kidnapping, robbing, raping, and torturing the victim he was sentenced to death.

The question now is whether Brown was sentenced in violation of his right to a jury has not been tilted in favor of capital punishment.

The voir dire for Brown’s trial had a separate phase for determining this issue that is to say whether the jurors were death qualified.

This was to determine whether each perspective juror could be impartial and deciding between the sentences of death on one hand or life in prison without possibility of parole on the other.

In this death qualification voir dire phase lasted 11 days.

During that phase Brown, the accused, challenged 18 jurors as been too disposed toward the death penalty.

The state objected to excusing some of these potential jurors that had argued they should be permitted to serve because they said they would consider both sentences and follow the law.

Defense counsel however, argued that even when a juror promises to follow the law that is insufficient to show that he or she is impartial.

11 potential jurors were excused on Brown’s motion, on the defense motion.

The state for its part challenged 12 jurors as too opposed to the death penalty.

Brown objected seven times and two jurors were excused over Brown’s objections.

And the voir dire was going slowly the Trial Court informed counsel that if a juror seems so confused as to be unacceptable to both counsel the process would go better if both sides came forward and told the judge the juror could be excused.

Now, the excusal of just one juror is in question here and the opinion referred to that juror is, Juror Z.

Before being examined Juror Z was twice informed that if Brown were convicted of aggravated murder, the alternative sentences would be life in prison without parole or death.

When he filled out a questioner about his belief in the death penalty he indicated the penalty was only acceptable when the defendant could be released and would offend again.

During questioning by counsel Z several times reiterated the importance of release and reviolation.

This was despite having been told by both counsel and the judge that Brown would not be released if he were convicted.

At the same time, Z promised to follow the law and said he will consider the death penalty and we have attached the full transcript of the voir dire examination of Juror Z to the opinion of the court.

At the end of the questioning the prosecution move to excuse that Z is unable to impose the death penalty because there was no possibility Brown would be released.

Defense counsel immediately volunteered no objection.

Juror Z was excused; brown was convicted and sentenced to death.

The State Supreme Court affirmed that noted Brown’s lack of an objection to Z’s removal.

It then held that under the controlling constitutional cases excusing Z was not a violation of Brown’s right to fair trial.

Brown sought federal habeas relief which was denied by the District Court.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed it held that the lack of an objection was irrelevant that no deference to the trial court’s decision was necessary because the transcript of Z’s questioning unambiguously showed he would be an acceptable juror and that Brown was entitled to a new sentencing trial.

We now reverse the Court of Appeals.

Our precedents establish that because of the state’s interest in administering at system of capital punishment.

The juror maybe excused for cause of the Juror’s use will prevent or substantially impaired the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his obstructions and his oath.

The trial court can perceive the demeanor of the potential juror for that reason the trial court is entitled to deference in determining whether there is substantial impairment.