Victory in Witherspoon Case Reforms Jury Selection Process in Capital Cases
The firm represented William Witherspoon in a case that would have major implications for how juries are selected in capital cases throughout the nation. In 1960, Witherspoon was sentenced to death by a jury. The jury was selected in a process that permitted the prosecution an unlimited number of challenges for cause with respect to any potential juror who expressed qualms about the death penalty. As a result, the jury that sentenced Witherspoon to death was composed only of persons who had no qualms about capital punishment. Jenner & Block represented Mr. Witherspoon on a pro bono basis in a post-conviction review that challenged the constitutionality of this process. The Illinois Supreme Court denied post-conviction relief. In an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, a team led by Albert Jenner, with Tom Sullivan, Jerry Solovy and John Tucker, secured a reversal of Witherspoon’s death sentence. On this day in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion holding that the method of selection of the jury that sentenced Witherspoon to death was unconstitutional. The Court reasoned: “A jury that must choose between life imprisonment and capital punishment can do little more – and must do nothing less – than express the conscience of the community on the ultimate question of life or death. Yet, in a nation less than half of whose people believe in the death penalty, a jury composed exclusively of such people cannot speak for the community.” The Court added: “To execute this death sentence would deprive [Witherspoon] of his life without the due process of the law.” As a result of the Witherspoon decision, more than 350 inmates on death row around the nation had their death sentences lifted.
Witherspoon was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment. He became a model prisoner. When he became eligible for possible parole, Jerry Solovy, with assistance from associates Mike Seng and Dan Murray, mounted a concerted effort over a number of years to secure Witherspoon’s parole. His parole application enjoyed the support of all of the prison wardens under whom he served and of all of the guards in Old Joliet Prison. The Parole Board ultimately granted him parole. Witherspoon devoted the remainder of his life working at a half-way house in Detroit, helping inmates coming out of prison in their adjustment and re-entry into society.
Please click here to read the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in Witherspoon. Click here for a recording of Bert's oral argument presented to the Court.
On Law Day: Celebrating Firm's Efforts to Ensure Defendants Have Effective Counsel
Today is Law Day, celebrating the rule of law and its significance to society. In recognition of the day, we highlight Don Verrilli's successful argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in Wiggins v. Smith in March 2003. Pro bono client Kevin Wiggins had been found guilty of capital murder after a bench trial in 1989; a jury sentenced him to death. But the two public defenders did not thoroughly investigate Mr. Wiggins’ background and, therefore, Don argued, failed to tell the jury of “powerful mitigating evidence” that could have spared him that fate. In its June 2003 ruling, the Court held that the performance of Mr. Wiggins’ attorneys at sentencing violated his Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel. The case reaffirmed the importance of the right to counsel in capital cases and helped to establish meaningful standards for defense counsel’s performance. Mr. Wiggins was resentenced to life in prison and ultimately sent to a state facility for mental health treatment and rehabilitation.
Firm's Role In Capital Punishment
The firm played a significant role in the state of Illinois’ journey toward abolishing capital punishment. On this week in 2003, then-Governor George Ryan issued clemency to approximately 160 inmates on the state’s Death Row, commuting their sentences to life in prison without parole. The unprecedented decision was based in part on the findings of Ryan’s Commission on Capital Punishment, co-chaired by Partner Tom Sullivan. Partners David Bradford and Terri Mascherin were also involved in the issue by representing three Death Row inmates seeking clemency. In 2004, when newly elected Attorney General Lisa Madigan challenged the governor’s power to issue some of those clemency orders, Terri successfully defended the orders in arguments before the Illinois Supreme Court. In 2005, Tom chaired the Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee. The Committee issued its report to the General Assembly on October 28, 2010. In 2008, Tom spoke before the ISBA Board of Governors in support of abolishing the death penalty, a resolution the Board ultimately adopted. On March 9, 2011, Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill abolishing the death penalty in Illinois, making it the 16th state in the nation without a death penalty.