Witherspoon v. Illinois

PETITIONER: Witherspoon
LOCATION: Todd Pacific Shipyards

DOCKET NO.: 1015
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1967-1969)

CITATION: 391 US 510 (1968)
ARGUED: Apr 24, 1968
DECIDED: Jun 03, 1968

Facts of the case

Witherspoon was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a jury in Illinois. An Illinois statute provides grounds for the dismissal of any juror with "conscientious scruples" against capital punishment. At Witherspoon's trial, the prosecution eliminated nearly half of the prospective jurors with qualms about capital punishment. The prosecution did not find out if most of the jurors dismissed would necessarily vote against capital punishment.

Witherspoon appealed, alleging that the dismissal of prospective jurors with qualms about capital punishment violated his Sixth Amendment right to an "impartial jury" and 14th Amendment right to due process. On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court found that no constitutional violation took place.


Does a state statue that provides grounds for the dismissal of any juror with "conscientious scruples" against capital punishment violate the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of an "impartial jury" and the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process?

Media for Witherspoon v. Illinois

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 24, 1968 in Witherspoon v. Illinois

Earl Warren:

Number 1015, William C. Witherspoon, petitioner versus Illinois et al.

I have with Mr. Jenner who was to speak first.

Albert E. Jenner, Jr.:

Yes, Your Honor.

Earl Warren:


I can see that.

Mr. Attorney General:

Mr. Chief Justice, Your Honors and may it please the Court.

In Number 1015, William C. Witherspoon versus Illinois, I move to James Zagel member of the State of Illinois Bar be permitted to argue in behalf of one of the respondents in this case, the sheriff of Cook County.

Mr. Zagel is a member of the State of Illinois Bar and has been in the practice for two-and-a-half years.

And during his two-and-a-half years practice, he has been in the criminal appeals section of the State Attorney's Office at Cook County.

I'm satisfied that he possesses necessary qualifications to argue the case in question, I respectfully request the Court to permit and do so at this time.

Earl Warren:

The motion is granted.

Mr. Jenner.

Albert E. Jenner, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice, Your Honors, may it please the Court.

I appear here on behalf of the petitioner and whose favor Your Honors granted certiorari to the Illinois Supreme Court.

In this case here, the petitioner stands convicted by jury in Cook County, Illinois of the murder of a policeman and the fixing by that jury of the penalty of death.

The case as I said comes of the Court by certiorari to the Supreme Court of Illinois which unanimously on writ of error in a post-conviction proceeding rejected the position of the petitioner which I have the privilege of presenting to Your Honors today and affirm the dismissal of the post-conviction petition which we filed myself, my partner Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Solovy in behalf of the petitioner.

Your Honors, limited the grant of certiorari to the following question, whether the operation of the Illinois statute providing that in a murder case, the state could challenge for a cause all prospective jurors who were opposed to or had conscientious scruples against capital punishment, deprived the petitioner of a jury which fairly represented a cross section of the community and interpolating in that scope of venireman were arbitrarily and systematically disqualified and excluded for cause.

And did this assure the state of a jury whose members were partial to the prosecution on the issue of guilt or innocence and I interpolate in that only none scope of venireman where judge qualified to serve all these in violation of the petitioners' rights to a fair and impartial jury out of the Sixth Amendment, to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the constitution of the United States.

Because in some aspects of the issues or sub-issues that are raised here, the course of these proceedings appeal wise and convict -- post-conviction wise will have I respectfully suggest that will appear some vary.

I will take a minute or two to indicate the post-conviction course of these proceedings.

The petitioner was indicted in October of 1959.

He elected on his trial to be tried by a jury.

He is an indigent that has been indigent throughout and has been a representative throughout these proceedings by court appointed counsel several successively in some respects having an effect upon his ability to preside this matter eventually to Your Honors in a posture which would have enable him possibly to avoid some of the problems here particularly that of possible retroactive application of Your Honor's decision if Your Honors hold -- uphold the position of the petitioner in this case.

As I say, he was represented by a court appointed counsel on his trial.

When that trial was completed, that court appointed counsel withdrew, new court appointed counsel at the suggestion of the defense of prisoner's committee of the Chicago Bar Association took -- came into the case and appeal to the Supreme Court of Illinois.

On that appeal, the appellant was unsuccessful.

The Court appointed counsel again withdrew.

The permission sought from this Court, the appointment of counsel to draft and prepare and submit to the Court a petition for writ of certiorari.

And this Court quite properly advised the petitioner that it did not appoint counsel to prepare petitions for presentations.

The petitioner then went back to the Supreme Court of Illinois and the Supreme Court of Illinois did appoint counsel but by that time, the period for the filing of petition for writ of certiorari had expired.