This case is important in the legal history of the United States because it reversed the earlier decision taken by the lower court which had excluded the jurors from participating in the trial as they had openly expressed their opposition to capital punishment. The Supreme Court decided that a partial jury cannot sentence a convicted person to death. This decision has created debate among the legal experts of the USA. In this case, William Witherspoon was charged with the murder of the Policeman when the latter tried to arrest Witherspoon.
Witherspoon was brought before the Circuit Court, Cook Country, Illinois and he was convicted of the murder of the policeman and he was sent to death. While taking this decision the court excluded those jurors who expressed their opinion that they conscientiously opposed the capital punishment. It was thought that those who opposed capital punishment may not be in a position to provide impartial judgment. Hence, the jurors who opposed capital punishment were excluded and only those jurors who favored capital punishment were included in this trial.
However, Mr. Justice Stewart of the United States Supreme Court decided that it is not possible to carry out death sentences in this case because the veniremen were excluded simply because due to religious and other factors they did not agree with the capital punishment and such a tribunal so selected by excluding some jurors cannot sentence a person to death. This is an important decision taken by the Supreme Court because it clarified its position regarding the question whether it is proper to exclude the jurors who opposed capital punishment.
The state of Illinois quoted the earlier judgments such as People v. Carpenter wherein the state provision that those jurors who opposed capital punishment should be excluded was applied. The Circuit Court also mentioned the earlier cases such as Commonwealth v. Webster, Atkins v. State, and Williams v. State. However, the Supreme Court did not agree with the decision of the lower court to exclude the jurors who opposed death punishment. (Mason, n. d., pp. 513-514)
This decision of the Illinois Supreme Court was dissented by the Judges such as Mr. Justice Black, Mr. Justice Harlan and Mr. Justice White who argued that the Court had committed the mistake by reversing the decision of the Circuit Court because it has failed to provide impartial jury in this case because those jurors who believed that they opposed death punishment would not be in a position to give impartial judgment. However, the Supreme Court decided that this clause of exclusion of jurors did not guarantee the due process of law for the convict and that the ‘hanging judiciary’ cannot sentence a person to death. The dissenting judges argued that the exclusion of the judges was necessary in order to provide the impartial judgment.
The dissenting judges quoted from the earlier cases to justify their argument. (Cornell Law School) This shows that this Supreme Court decision resulted in a controversy among legal experts concerning the impact of such judgment on the future cases. This decision showed that the Supreme Court did not favor the act of exclusion of the jurors on the ground that they conscientiously opposed capital punishment. This decision challenged the state provisions for the exclusion of the jurors who opposed capital punishment.
One can also suggest that the judiciary has showed its judicial activism by interpreting the rules of the Illinois State and this interpretation can be used by the other courts while giving judgment involving the similar circumstances. This decision given by the Supreme Court also indicates the conflict between the legislature and judiciary as the state statute was challenged by the judiciary based on the constitutional amendments. The 1960s is important in the history of the US legal history because during this period there was the demand for abolition of death penalty as it was not sanctioned by the Eighth amendment of the US constitution.
In 1968 the Courts had to deal with the cases pertaining to the discretion of the jurors while awarding capital punishment. In the U. S. v. Jackson case it was argued that according to a federal statute death penalty can be given only on the basis of recommendation of the jury. However, this argument was not supported by the Court because this would encourage the convicted people to avoid jury in order to escape capital punishment. (DPIC, n. d. ) This shows that the Witherspoon vs. Illinois also discussed the role of the jury in deciding the punishment of the convicted persons.