Morgan v. Illinois
Decided on June 15, 1992; 504 US 719


A. Issues Discussed:  Criminal Justice (death penalty), jury selection, 14th Amendment, 6th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

While questioning jurors for jury selection in a capital offense trial, can a state court refuse, without being in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause, inquiry into whether a potential juror would automatically impose the death penalty upon conviction of the defendant?


A. Background:

The trial of a capital offense in Illinois is conducted in two phases, with the same jury determining both a defendant’s guilt and whether the death penalty should be imposed. Petitioner Derrick Morgan was convicted in Cook County, Illinois, of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

In accordance with Illinois law, the trial court, rather than the attorneys, selected the jurors. The State requested, pursuant to Witherspoon v. Illinois, that the court ask potential jurors whether any of them had moral or religious principles so strong that he or she could not impose the death penalty “regardless of the facts.” Accordingly, the trial court, over opposition from the defense, questioned each potential juror about their ability to impose the death penalty. 17 potential jurors expressed substantial doubts about their ability to follow Illinois law in deciding whether to impose a sentence of death, and each were dismissed from the court.

In response, Morgan's council requested the court ask the potential jurors if they would automatically vote to impose the death penalty, "regardless of the facts." The court denied the defendent's request, stating that it had substantially asked the same question in other words; every juror eventually selected was asked whether each could be fair and impartial, and most were asked whether they could follow “instructions on the law.”

On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed Morgan’s conviction and death sentence, rejecting the claim that the court has to include the “life qualifying” question upon request when selecting the jury.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Allen H. Andrews III argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner. Kenneth L. Gillis argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Roland W. Burris, Attorney General of Illinois, Terence M. Madsen, Assistant Attorney General, Jack O’Malley, Randall E. Roberts, Sally L. Dilgart, William D. Carroll, and Marie Quinlivan Czech.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union, et al., by Robert L. Graham, Laura A. Kaster, Harvey Grossman, John A. Powell, Steven Shapiro, and Diann Rust-Tierney; and for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers by Andrea D. Lyon.

No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Respondent.


"[D]ue process alone has long demanded that, if a jury is to be provided the defendant, regardless of whether the Sixth Amendment requires it, the jury must stand impartial and indifferent to the extent commanded by the Sixth Amendment.


A juror who will automatically vote for the death penalty in every case will fail in good faith to consider the evidence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances as the instructions require him to do… Therefore, based on the requirement of impartiality embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a capital defendant may challenge for cause any prospective juror who maintains such views. If even one such juror is empanelled and the death sentence is imposed, the State is disentitled to execute the sentence...


We deal here with petitioner’s ability to exercise intelligently his complementary challenge for cause against those biased persons on the venire who as jurors would unwaveringly impose death after a finding of guilt. Were voir dire not available to lay bare the foundation of petitioner’s challenge for cause against those prospective jurors who would always impose death following conviction, his right not to be tried by such jurors would be rendered as nugatory and meaningless as the State’s right, in the absence of questioning, to strike those who would never do so...


Petitioner was entitled, upon his request, to inquiry discerning those jurors who, even prior to the State’s case in chief, had predetermined the terminating issue of his trial, that being whether to impose the death penalty...


Because the 'inadequacy of voir dire' leads us to doubt that petitioner was sentenced to death by a jury empanelled in compliance with the Fourteenth Amendment, his sentence cannot stand… Accordingly, the judgment of the Illinois Supreme Court affirming petitioner’s death sentence is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."

Justice Vote: 6 Pro vs. 3 Con

  • White, B.  Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A.  Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W.  Con (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Thomas, C.  Con (Joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed a brief as amicus curiae urging reversal; the Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Illinois Supreme Court in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.