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Supreme Court Decision Update - Uttecht v. Brown

deathpenalty-thumb.jpgSince Uttech v. Brown (PDF of the opinion) comes up from the Ninth Circuit, it should come as no surprise that we are looking at another Supreme Court reversal. Them Supremes just love overturning the Ninth - I think they might actually be addicted to it, and in serious need of professional counseling.

Anyway, the underlying case focuses on a death sentence issued to Cal Coburn Brown by a Washington jury for his vile robbery, rape, torture and murder of two women. Brown eventually filed a habeas petition with the federal courts arguing, among other things, that his constitutional rights had been violated when three potential jurors were dismissed for cause. The District Court denied the habeas petition, but the Ninth Circuit reversed. It ruled that Brown’s constitutional rights were violated by one of the dismissals, where a juror was let go because he claimed he couldn’t be impartial in making a death sentence decision.

Justice Kennedy writes for the 5-4 majority (joined by Chief Justice Johnny, the Scalia, and Justices Thomas and Alito) in overturning the Ninth. Kennedy begins by noting that there’s an underlying balance here, as a criminal defendant is entitled to an impartial jury not predisposed to capital punishment, while the State has an interest in having a jury which is capable of working within the legal confine of the state’s capital punishment scheme. Thus, it is ok to dismiss a juror for cause if that juror is “substantial impaired” in being able to impose a death sentence. And the trial judge is in the best position to judge a potential jury member’s disposition, as they alone are able to actually perceive the person’s responses and overall demeanor during the voir dire process.

In this case, the trial judge specifically determined that the potential juror was substantially impaired in his ability to give practical application of the state’s capital punishment laws. So this dismissal was firmly within the judge’s inherent discretion and that decision is entitled to dereference, again, because of the judge’s unique ability to actually perceive the person’s overall demeanor and responses. And this deference does not “foreclose the possibility” that a dismissal could later be reversed - a dismissal would be impermissible, and entitled to reversal, “where the record discloses no basis for a finding of substantial impairment.” But that’s just not the case here.

Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, joined by the other three dissenters, Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. Stevens notes that many Americans oppose the death penalty, but he doesn’t think that a potential juror is “substantially impaired” if they believe a life sentence with no possibility of parole is the harshest sentence that should “be imposed in all but the most heinous cases.” Stevens accuses the majority of “blindly” deferring to a state court’s “erroneous characterization of” a potential juror’s statements, and he thinks the record doesn’t support such deference. “Shenanigans,” he says!

Justice Breyer also filed a short dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Souter. He wrote separately from Justice Stevens’ dissenting opinion “to emphasize that, in my opinion, the majority’s strongest piece of evidence … should play no role in our analysis.” That piece of evidence is the fact that Brown’s attorney said “no objection” when the trial court dismissed the juror in question. Breyer says this failure to object should have no impact on the Supremes’ analysis, as this isn’t the type of situation where the failure to object is equated to waiver. He believes the majority reads far too much into the defense’s “no objection” statement, treating them “like a Rorschach blot” into the overall courtroom “atmospherics.”

| Comments (1)


are there examples of a verdict being overturned upon appeal, when the accused is denied defense council and he/she does not understand the law; and fails to object to evidence being presented. I.E, item is placed in fanny pack and later pack is searched and planted item is found, inorder to establish guilt.