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A state may not entrust the determination of whether a man should live or die to a tribunal organized to return a verdict of death. A 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. No defendant can constitutionally be put to death at the hands of a tribunal so selected.
At the petitioner’s trial for murder, the prosecution eliminated nearly half the venire of prospective jurors by challenging, under the authority of Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 38, para. 743 (1959), any venireman who expressed qualms about capital punishment. Only 5 of the 47 venireman who were eliminated explicitly stated that under no circumstances would they vote to impose capital punishment. The prisoner was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Petitioner sought review of the judgment of the Illinois Supreme Court, which denied him post-conviction relief.
Was the imposition of death penalty upon the petitioner proper, notwithstanding the fact that the prosecution eliminated nearly half the venire of prospective jurors under the authority of Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 38, para. 743 (1959)?
The Supreme Court reversed the sentence because the composition of the jury violated the prisoner's rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. According to the Court, although there was not a per se rule that would invalidate the conviction, the jury's impartiality with respect to sentencing was inadequate. Where the prosecutor was allowed to eliminate every venireman who expressed any reservations about the death penalty, the state crossed the line of neutrality, producing a jury uncommonly willing to condemn a man to die. To execute the prisoner would have deprived him of his life without due process of law.