New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
January 6, 2008

Second Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Jurors for Cause in Capital Case Based Solely on Questionnaire Responses

In United States v. Quinones, No. 04-5554-cr, 2007 WL 4571412, (2d Cir. December 28, 2007), a capital case, the Court affirmed the dismissal of several jurors for cause based solely on their responses on a questionnaire relating to their views on the death penalty.  The Court held that "a district judge does not abuse his discretion simply by using a written questionnaire in the voir dire process," and rejected the defense request to mandate oral questioning in capital cases.  The Court, however, "strongly" recommended "some oral voir dire" in capital cases, noting that this was a "rare exception" to the "commendable" general practice of district courts in this circuit to employ oral questioning to resolve disputes over death-scrupled jurors.  In any event, the Court held that any error was harmless here where the jury had voted against imposing the death penalty.  

Of more universal interest is the obvious but potentially useful point the Court made, applicable to both capital and non-capital cases, that the need for oral inquiry increases upon the ambiguity of the prospective jurors' written questionnaire responses: "[S]ome facts may reveal juror partiality more obviously than others. While blunt acknowledgment of bias may support removal without further inquiry, the more ambiguous a prospective juror's responses, the more useful demeanor, and thus oral inquiry, become in allowing a trial judge to identify partiality warranting removal for cause."  Thus, implicitly, Quinones is a useful precedent for the proposition that removal for cause based on questionnaire responses alone is only appropriate where the responses evidence "irrecovable bias" so as "to render superfluous further oral inquiry about the juror's ability to follow legal instructions and to serve impartially."  Examples of such responses would include "revealing that [the prospective juror] was the defendant's brother or the prosecutor's uncle, stating that he thought all persons of the defendant's ethnicity were criminals, or pronouncing that he had already concluded from the nature of the charges that the defendant must be guilty."

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