In the rare Federal death penalty case, the Court of Appeals on December 28, 2007 ruled that the trial judge should question jurors orally about their views on capital punishment. But while that's the preferred method of determining whether a prospective juror is appropriate for the case, the judge can also opt to question jurors in writing.
The case is U.S. v. Quinones, 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 29866 (2d Cir. Dec. 28, 2007). The defendants in this case were found guilty of racketeering, drug trafficking and killing a confidential informant. While the jury ruled against imposing the death penalty, the defense lawyers argued that the jury was improperly chosen because the judge only asked them about their views on the death penalty in writing. The defendants also argued on appeal that the trial was defective because the jury was anonymous.
The Court of Appeals (Winter, Cabranes and Raggi) rejected these arguments. Citing U.S. v. Amuso, 21 F.3d 1251 (2d Cir. 2004), the Second Circuit noted that, in "reviewing an anonymous jury challenge, we 'balance the defendant's interest in conducting meaningful voir dire and in maintaining the presumption of innocence, against [the jury's] interest in remaining free from real or threatened violence and the public interest in having the jury render a fair and impartial verdict.'" In this case, the anonymous jury was necessary because the defendants threatened the legal process in killing a confidential informant in retaliation for his cooperation with law enforcement authorities. "Indeed, trial evidence showed the defendants' dogged determination in pursuing this homicidal objective, both directly and through various confederates. . . . The murder of Eddie Santiago threatened the judicial process both by eliminating a witness who could have provided incriminating evidence against defendants and by sending a powerfully frightening message to others of the terrible consequences awaiting anyone who cooperated in defendants' prosecution."
The Court of Appeals also ruled that the trial court did not commit reversible error in questioning jurors in writing about their views on the death penalty. The Constitution allows the trial court to remove potential jurors from the case if their "opposition to the death penalty would, in fact, 'prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with [the court's] instructions and [the juror's] oath.'" While the preferred method is for the judge to speak directly with the potential jurors on this issue (in order to better assess their demeanor and credibility), the trial court in this case did not abuse its discretion in questioning the jurors in writing.
Interesting footnote to this case. As the Second Circuit itself noted in a footnote, "Preliminary to trial, the district court declared the federal death penalty unconstitutional, see United States v. Quinones, 205 F. Supp. 2d 256 (S.D.N.Y. 2002), but this court reversed that ruling in United States v. Quinones, 313 F.3d 49 (2d Cir. 2002).