Lockhart v. McCree 1986

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Lockhart v. McCree 1986

Petitioner: A.L. Lockhart

Respondent: Ardia V. McCree

Petitioner's Claim: That Arkansas did not violate the constitution in death penalty cases by removing prospective jurors who could not vote for death under any circumstances.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: John Steven Clark, Attorney General of Arkansas

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Samuel R. Gross

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, Warren E. Burger, Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens

Date of Decision: May 5, 1986

Decision: The Supreme Court said Arkansas did not violate the constitution.

Significance: Lockhart allows states to use death-qualified juries during the guilt phase of death penalty cases even though evidence suggests that death-qualified juries are more likely to convict defendants.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives every American the right to be tried by an impartial jury when accused of a crime. An impartial jury is one that is fair, neutral, and open-minded. A jury cannot be fair unless it is selected from a fair cross-section of the community. Using impartial juries allow defendants to be judged fairly by their peers from the community.

Selecting a jury for a case is a two-stage process. In the first stage, the court creates a large pool of people to serve as jurors. This pool is called a venire. It is supposed to contain a cross-section of the community. In the second stage, the court and lawyers select twelve people from the venire to be the jury for a specific case.

During the second stage, lawyers for both parties get to make jury challenges. A jury challenge allows the parties to exclude specific people from the jury. One kind of jury challenge is called "for cause." Parties use for cause challenges to strike jurors who might not be able to decide a case fairly. For example, if a potential juror is the defendant's brother, the prosecutor can use a for cause challenge to prevent the brother from serving on the jury.

Jurors take an oath promising to apply the law when deciding a case. In states that use the death penalty, that means jurors must be able to impose the death penalty if the defendant deserves it. Often a juror says she opposes the death penalty and could not sentence a person to die under any circumstances. In Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court said prosecutors may use for cause challenges to exclude such jurors. This is called selecting a death-qualified jury. In Lockhart v. McCree, the Supreme Court had to decide whether death-qualified juries violate the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to have an impartial jury.

Bloody Valentine

Evelyn Boughton owned and operated a service station with a gift shop in Camden, Arkansas. On Valentine's Day in 1978, Boughton was murdered during a robbery. Eyewitnesses said the getaway car was a maroon and white Lincoln Continental.

Later that afternoon, police in Hot Springs, Arkansas, arrested Ardia McCree, who was driving a maroon and white Lincoln Continental. McCree admitted to being at Boughton's shop during the murder. He claimed, however, that he had given a ride to a tall black stranger who was wearing an overcoat. McCree said the stranger took McCree's rifle from the back seat of the car and used it to kill Boughton, then rode with McCree to a nearby dirt road and got out of the car with the rifle.

Two eyewitnesses disputed McCree's story. They saw McCree's car with only one person in it between Boughton's shop and the place where McCree said the black man got out. The police found McCree's rifle and a bank bag from Boughton's shop alongside the dirt road. The Federal Bureau of Investigation determined that the bullet that killed Boughton came from McCree's rifle.

Life in Prison

Arkansas charged McCree with capital felony murder. Felony murder is a murder committed in the course of a felony, such as a robbery. At McCree's trial, the prosecutor used jury challenges to remove eight prospective jurors who said they could not impose the death penalty under any circumstances. The jury convicted McCree but gave him life in prison instead of the death penalty.

McCree filed a habeas corpus lawsuit against his jailer, the Arkansas Department of Corrections. A habeas corpus lawsuit is for people who are in jail because their constitutional rights have been violated. McCree said Arkansas violated his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury by excluding jurors who would not impose the death penalty. He said it also violated his Sixth Amendment right to have the jury selected from a fair cross-section of the community.

At a hearing, McCree presented evidence that people who favor the death penalty are more likely to convict than are people who oppose it. By excluding people who oppose the death penalty, Arkansas increased the chance that the jury would find McCree guilty of murder. McCree said that violated the Sixth Amendment. The federal trial court and court of appeals both agreed and ordered Arkansas to release McCree from prison. Arkansas thought the courts were wrong, so it took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Juries Must Apply the Law

With a 6–3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed and ruled in favor of the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Writing for the Court, Justice William H. Rehnquist rejected the evidence that death-qualified juries are more likely to convict defendants. Rehnquist said the evidence was faulty and did not prove anything. Rehnquist, however, did not base the Court's decision on the evidence alone. Even assuming that death-qualified juries are more likely to convict, Rehnquist said they do not violate the Sixth Amendment.

Rehnquist gave two reasons for the Court's decision. First, he said the Sixth Amendment only guarantees that a jury will be drawn from a fair cross-section of the community. That means the venire from which a jury is selected must be a cross-section of the community. The Sixth Amendment does not require each jury to represent the entire community. Rehnquist said it would be impossible to make sure that every jury of twelve people represented the various viewpoints of all members of the community.

Second, Rehnquist said the Sixth Amendment requires juries to be impartial. There was no evidence that any member of McCree's jury did not decide his case fairly and impartially. Indeed, there was no reason to believe that death-qualified juries cannot be impartial when deciding whether defendants are guilty. Because death-qualified juries can be impartial, they do not violate the Sixth Amendment.

In the end, Rehnquist said states have a good reason for using death-qualified juries. Jurors must apply the law. In death penalty states, jurors must be able to impose the death penalty if the defendant deserves it. Excluding jurors who cannot ensures that all jurors in death penalty cases can obey their oaths. McCree's conviction did not violate the Sixth Amendment, so he had to serve his sentence of life in prison.

Organized to Convict

Three justices dissented, which means they disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote a dissenting opinion. He believed the evidence was overwhelming that death-qualified juries are more likely to convict defendants. Marshall said that means death-qualified juries are "organized to return a verdict of guilty." Marshall did not understand how such juries satisfy the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a fair, impartial jury.

Marshall even proposed a solution to the whole problem. In death penalty cases, states can use two juries. The first jury can decide guilt or innocence. Citizens can serve on that jury even if they oppose the death penalty. If the first jury decides the defendant is guilty, a second jury can determine the sentence. Only citizens who are able to impose the death penalty can serve on the second jury. Marshall criticized the Court for rejecting this solution in favor of allowing death-qualified juries to convict defendants.


I n 1960, Illinois had a law that allowed prosecutors to exclude jurors who had conscientious, religious, or other general objections to the death penalty. William C. Witherspoon was convicted and sentenced to death by such a death-qualified jury. When Witherspoon appealed his case, the Supreme Court affirmed his conviction but reversed his death sentence. The Court said prosecutors may exclude jurors who say they could never vote for the death penalty. But a juror who simply is opposed to the death penalty may serve as a juror if he promises to apply the law as instructed by the judge. According to the Court, "A man who opposes the death penalty, no less than one who favors it, can … obey the oath he takes as a juror."

Suggestions for further reading

Guinther, John. The Jury in America. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1988.

Mikula, Mark, and L. Mpho Mabunda, eds. Great American Court Cases. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1999.

Wolf, Robert V. The Jury System. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999.

Zerman, Melvyn Bernard. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Inside the American Jury System. New York: Crowell, 1981.

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