Lockhart v. McCree

Lockhart v. McCree was a 1986 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court holding that it was not a violation of the requirement that a jury be a fair representation of a community if a court removed from the jury pool—prior to jury selection—all potential jurors who had expressed their opposition to the death penalty. Building upon its 1968 ruling in Witherspoon v. Illinois, the Court clarified the concept of fair representation for a jury of one’s peers.

The case of Lockhart v. McCree began in 1978 when Ardia V. McCree stood trial in connection with the shooting death of gift shop and service station owner Evelyn Broughton in Camden (Ouachita County) on February 14, 1978. While McCree denied his involvement in the incident, federal authorities compiled extensive evidence, and he was ultimately charged with felony capital murder. During the jury selection process, the trial judge—as allowed by Arkansas law, but over McCree’s objections—excluded from the jury pool eight prospective jurors who stated that they would not, under any circumstances, vote to impose the death penalty if McCree were found guilty.

The jury that was ultimately seated and heard the case found McCree guilty of the capital felony murder charge, but it rebuffed the state’s request for the death penalty, instead sentencing him to life in prison without parole. On appeal, the conviction was affirmed. McCree then filed a federal habeas corpus petition, alleging that his rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments had been violated by the exclusion of the prospective jurors. Specifically, he asserted that the removal for cause of the jurors who refused to consider capital punishment represented a violation of his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to, as the court put it, “have his guilt or innocence determined by an impartial jury selected from a representative cross section of the community.”

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas agreed, and the Eighth Circuit upheld the lower court ruling. The decisions were based in large part on the 1968 decision in Witherspoon v. Illinois, which held that the “sentence of death cannot be carried out if the jury that imposed or recommended it was chosen by excluding veniremen for cause simply because they voiced general objections to the death penalty or expressed conscientious or religious scruples against its infliction.”

When it came before the Supreme Court for argument in January 1986, the case presented, in the words of Justice William H. Rehnquist who wrote the opinion, an issue the Court had left open eighteen years before in Witherspoon v. Illinois. He asked, “Does the Constitution prohibit the removal for cause, prior to the guilt phase of a bifurcated capital trial, of prospective jurors whose opposition to the death penalty is so strong that it would prevent or substantially impair the performance of their duties as jurors at the sentencing phase of the trial?”

On behalf of a six-member majority, Rehnquist wrote an opinion that said that the U.S. Constitution did not, in fact, prohibit that removal, and that the fact that the jury was so constituted was not a violation of McCree’s rights. He waded through the arguments that had been offered on McCree’s behalf, including the multiple social science studies that concluded that such disqualification resulted in juries more likely to convict in capital cases, before concluding that the studies themselves were flawed and did not warrant a conclusion that McCree’s rights had been abridged. Rather, in looking at the argument that by disqualifying those who refused to consider the death penalty the court was violating the requirement that the jury represents a “fair cross-section” of the population, Rehnquist said that it did not, and neither did it violate the safeguards the court had previously established, including the prevention of the exercise of arbitrary power by the judge, any actions that would undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system, and the implementation of the Court’s belief that the shared administration of justice is part of civic responsibility. Indeed, on the collateral issue of the civic responsibility of those prospective jurors who were disqualified, Rehnquist addressed the concern that such disqualifications would abridge their rights and absolve them of their responsibilities, but he noted that they would still be fully eligible and able to serve in non-capital cases.

In the end, in overturning the lower court rulings, Rehnquist wrote that the state had a legitimate interest in impaneling jurors who could “properly and impartially apply the law to the facts of the case at both the guilt and sentencing phases of a capital trial.” He also asserted that so long as the jury was drawn from a fair cross section of the community, was impartial, and could properly apply the law, a defendant’s right to a fair trial was secured.

Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices William J. Brennan and John Paul Stevens. Marshall maintained that by excluding death penalty opponents, prosecutors were given an unfair advantage in the trial proceedings. In contrast to the majority, the dissenters agreed with the studies relied upon by the lower courts showing that juries that had been “death qualified” were more likely to convict, and thus not offer a defendant a fair trial.

In the end, the ruling in Lockhart seemed to represent more of a shift than simply a response to an unanswered question, as the Court had ruled previously in Witherspoon v. Illinois that courts could not select juries that appeared more willing to sentence a defendant to death, while focusing on different aspects of fairness in jury selection.

For additional information:
Byrne, Jane. “Lockhart v. McCree: Conviction Proneness and the Constitutionality of Death-Qualified Juries.” Catholic University Law Review 36 (Fall 1986). Online at https://scholarship.law.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1974&context=lawreview (accessed December 22, 2022).

Crump, Susan Waite. “Lockhart v. McCree: The ‘Biased but Unbiased Juror,’ What Are the States’ Legitimate Interests?” Denver Law Review 65 (January 1988). Online at https://digitalcommons.du.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2591&context=dlr (accessed December 22, 2022).

Lockhart v. McCree, 476 U.S. 162 (1986); https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/476/162 (accessed December 22, 2022).

William H. Pruden
Ravenscroft School


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