Lockhart v. McCree, 476 U.S. 162 (1986)

2012-07-26 12:20:17

Lockhart v. McCree addresses the constitutionality of death qualification, the removal of prospective jurors whose opposition to Capital Punishment may prevent or substantially impair the performance of their duties at the Sentencing phase.

Ardia McCree filed a habeas corpus petition after being convicted of capital Felony Murder and sentenced to life without parole in Arkansas. At trial, eight prospective jurors were removed for their stated belief that they could not impose the death penalty under any circumstance. McCree argued that his right to an impartial jury selected from a representative cross-section of the community was violated and cited empirical studies that suggest death-qualified juries are conviction prone. The lower courts found these studies persuasive and held that death-qualified juries are unconstitutional. A. L. Lockhart, the Director of the Arkansas Department of Correction, appealed this decision to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court criticized the empirical studies but held that, even assuming their validity, death qualifying does not violate the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court found that the fair crosssection requirement applies to venires and that deathqualified jurors are not a distinctive group. To McCree’s argument that impartiality requires balancing predispositions, the Court wrote that defining impartiality as such is illogical and outweighed by the state’s interest in administrative efficiency and the benefit of residual doubt. The Court distinguished Lockhart from Witherspoon v. Illinois and Adams v. Texas, both of which dealt with capital Sentencing, not guilt.

The dissent in Lockhart and subsequent commentaries criticize the Court’s disregard of empirical evidence and high regard for judicial economy over defendants’ rights. Lockhart was decided before the Court became aware of the high frequency of error in capital cases. The risk of death qualifying is perhaps greater than the Court envisioned.


References and Further Reading

  • Bersoff, Donald N., and David J. Glass, The Not-So Weisman: The Supreme Court’s Continuing Misuse of Social Science Research, University of Chicago Law School Roundtable 2 (1995): 279, 297–300.
  • Ellsworth, Phoebe. ‘‘Unpleasant Facts: The Supreme Court’s Response to Empirical Research on Capital Punishment,’’ in Challenging Capital Punishment, Ed. Place, 1988, pp. 177–211.
  • Haney, Craig, Aida Hurtado, and Luis Vega, ‘‘Modern’’ Death Qualification: New Data on Its Biasing Effects, Law and Human Behavior 18 (1994): 619–633.
  • Liebman, James S., The Overproduction of Death, Columbia Law Review 2030 (2000): 100: 2097, n. 164

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Adams v. Texas, 448 U.S. 38 (1980)
  • Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 424 (1985)
  • Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968)