TURNER v. MURRAY

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
84-6646
Petitioner 
Willie Lloyd Turner
Respondent 
Edward W. Murray
Opinion 
Advocates
(on behalf of the respondent)
(on behalf of the petitioner)
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Facts of the Case 

In July 1978, Willie Lloyd Turner entered a jewelry store and killed the proprietor. Turner was disarmed, arrested, and charged with capital murder. During the jury selection process, Turner’s counsel requested that the trial judge ask potential jurors if they would be biased by the fact that Turner was black while the victim was white. The judge declined to ask the question regarding racial prejudice and instead asked the prospective jurors if they thought that they would be able to be impartial and fair. Turner was convicted and sentenced to death.

After exhausting his appellate options at the state level, Turner filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal district court. Because the facts of the case “did not suggest a significant likelihood that racial prejudice might [have] infect[ed the defendant’s] trial,” the district court held that the trial judge’s refusal to question potential jurors about racial prejudice was not unconstitutional. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Question 

In a capital case involving an interracial crime, is the defendant entitled to have potential jurors informed of the victim’s race and questioned about any potential racial biases?

Conclusion 
Decision: 7 votes for Turner, 2 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Amendment 6: Other Sixth Amendment Provisions

Yes. Justice Byron R. White delivered the opinion for the 7-2 majority. The Court held that “special circumstance[s]” could create a significant likelihood that a trial judge’s failure to question potential jurors about racial prejudice leads to a biased jury. In this case, where an interracial murder was charged as a capital offense, the Court held that the facts amounted to one of those special circumstances. The Court reasoned that jurors in capital cases have broader discretion that makes it easier to act, even if subtly, with racial prejudice. This discretion, coupled with the finality of a death sentence, entitles defendants in interracial capital cases to inform prospective jurors of the victim’s race and question them about any potential racial bias.

Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which he argued that the majority should have overturned Turner’s death sentence rather than vacating it. In his separate opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that the defendant should retain the right to inform prospective jurors of the race of the victim and inquire about potential racial biases in any case that involved a violent interracial crime. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. joined in the opinion.

Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. wrote a dissenting opinion in which he warned that the majority’s new rule would drastically increase the number of death row prisoners filing habeas petitions without providing them any new protections. Justice William H. Rehnquist joined in the opinion.

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TURNER v. MURRAY. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 04 May 2015. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1985/1985_84_6646>.
TURNER v. MURRAY, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1985/1985_84_6646 (last visited May 4, 2015).
"TURNER v. MURRAY," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed May 4, 2015, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1985/1985_84_6646.