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.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

As this court is held in two previous cases the trial court’s judgment must stand when there is ambiguity in the transcript.

Deference is due even when the trial court does not give its reason for excusing the juror.

We have also held that failure to object by a defendant is relevant to the enquiry.

Even if as here it was not treated as an absolute bar to relief under state law.

Even on a face of the transcript Juror Z’s comments that suggest us that he would have been substantially impaired in a case like this where a life in prisons or without parole was possible.

Moreover, Z’s demeanor during voir dire may have supported this impression.

The trial judge was careful and conscientious in conducting this voir dire.

Brown’s counsel was thorough and aggressive in objecting the state’s challenges.

Nevertheless, neither the trial court nor the defense saw any problem with the state’s motion to excuse Juror Z.

In our view there is no doubt that the statement by defense counsel no objection must be taken that mean the defense had no objection to the excusal of Juror Z and Washington Supreme Court’s decision can be read to reach the same conclusion.

Particularly in light of the deference owed to the State Court determination under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

The record does not support Brown’s effort more than a decade after the voir dire to second-guess the trial’s court’s judgment.

The trial court’s decision was reasonable.

Brown was not denied a fair trial and for these reasons now we reverse the Court of Appeals.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer have joined.

Justice Breyer also has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Souter has joined.

Millions of Americans oppose the death penalty.

Most of them are nevertheless able to follow the trial judge’s instructions in capital cases and therefore are qualified to serve as jurors.

As then Justice Rehnquist explained in an opinion for the court in 1986, “It is important to remember that not all who oppose the death penalty are subject to removal for cause in capital cases; those who firmly believe that the death penalty is unjust may nevertheless serve as jurors in capital cases so long as they state clearly that they are willing to temporarily set aside their own beliefs in deference to the rule of law.”

Today the court pushes aside decades of well-established law emphasizing that only a juror whose views would “substantially” impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath may be struck for cause.

The court created that rule to prevent against unnecessarily narrowing the cross-section of potential jurors and selecting the jury predisposed toward imposing the death sentence.

In broadly redefining this standard today the court has rendered yet meaningless and jeopardized the very rationale that lead to its creation.

The juror’s struck for cause in the case before us today was not even an opponent of the death penalty.

He repeatedly and unambiguously asserted his capability to follow the law stating that he believed in the death penalty in severe situations that there are times when the death penalty would be appropriate and that he could consider and vote to impose the death penalty even when he knew the only other available sentence would be life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Yet the court reads those statements as ambiguous and without any support from the record suggested there was something about the juror’s demeanor that must have caused the trial judge to correctly conclude that he could not perform his duties as instructed.

This juror is only arguable favoring was his desire to take his responsibilities as a juror with special seriousness and to acknowledge that in some situations the severe sanction of a death serenity may not be appropriate.

In the past we have protected against such jurors being struck for cause in order to prevent the jury from being unfairly biased in favor of the death penalty.

Today the court has done away with that protection rendering countless Americans ineligible to serve as capital jurors and more importantly, preventing countless defendants from being tried to a fair an impartial jury.

Because the court’s decision is in my view wholly unsupported by the record or our prior precedence I respectfully dissent.