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Witherspoon v. Illinois

United States Supreme Court
391 U.S. 510, 88 S.Ct. 1770, 20 L.Ed.2d 776 (1968)


Witherspoon (defendant) was prosecuted for capital murder. At the time, an Illinois statute allowed the prosecution (plaintiff) to challenge for cause “any juror who shall, on being examined, state that he has conscientious scruples against capital punishment, or that he is opposed to the same.” That gave the prosecution unlimited challenges against jurors who expressed any reservations about the death penalty. Early in the jury selection process, the judge said, “Let’s get these conscientious objectors out of the way, without wasting any time on them.” The prosecution eliminated nearly half the prospective jurors as a result, with 47 removed in rapid succession solely because of their views on the death penalty. Only five of those explicitly stated they could never impose it. Six said they did not believe in the death penalty but were not asked whether they could nonetheless impose it before the judge removed them. The judge questioned at length only one juror, who twice said she would not “like to be responsible” for putting someone to death before the judge told her to “step aside.” The resulting jury convicted Witherspoon and sentenced him to death. The Illinois courts denied post-conviction relief, but the Supreme Court granted review.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (Stewart, J.)

Concurrence/Dissent (Douglas, J.)

Dissent (White, J.)

Dissent (Black, J.)

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