Dealing With Juror Skepticism of LWOP in Death Penalty Cases

In a death penalty case, finding impartial jurors can be challenging.  For example, many prospective jurors have a high degree of skepticism whether a sentence of life without possibility of parole really means that a defendant sentenced to LWOP (Life Without The Possibility of Parole) will spend the rest of his or her life in prison. Such a point of view might make a juror more likely to vote for death. Many judges in death penalty cases believe that they should not wait for prospective jurors to raise questions about LWOP, but also that counsel should not be allowed to open up the area.  According to Long Beach Criminal Attorney  Matthew Ruff,  those judges should specifically tell prospective jurors that they are to assume that a sentence they decide on, whether death or LWOP, will be carried out. For a particularly thorough explanation of LWOP to jurors. Some criminal court judges then ask jurors individually whether they could and would make this assumption in the event the trial reached the penalty phase. Judges generally permit little, if any, attorney questioning about their opinions on whether the defendant would indeed spend the rest of his life in prison.  A prospective juror who expresses unwillingness to assume that LWOP means LWOP should be disqualified. For example, in one recent appeals court case, the justices ruled that a juror who has doubts about LWOP is not automatically disqualified as long as the juror is promptly told to assume that the chosen penalty, death or LWOP, will be carried out, and the juror then states that he or she will make such an assumption for purposes of the trial. The same is true of the occasional juror who regards LWOP as a worse punishment than death. See People v Millwee (1998) 18 C4th 96, 147 (juror disqualified if insistent on following this view regardless of instructions); People v Ochoa (1998) 19 C4th 353, 446, (juror who believes LWOP is cruel and unjust, but says he would not vote for death simply because of his views, is not disqualified).  The bottom line in death penalty cases is that finding fair jurors can be difficult and every benefit of the doubt regarding this issue should be given to the accused.

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