In People v. Woodruff, the California Supreme Court reversed a death sentence because of the erroneous exclusion of a prospective juror (D.K.). D.K.'s removal was based solely on his responses to his juror questionnaire. When asked about his views on the death penalty in the questionnaire D.K. wrote:
“I don’t believe in the death penalty,”
When asked on a scale of 1-10 to circle which number corresponded to his views on the death penalty, with 10 be strongly against, D.K. circled 10. D.K. also wrote that “Men are equals only God can make those choices.”
However, D.K. checked "no" to the question whether his personal opinion would make it difficult to vote for the death penalty regardless of the evidence. In addition, D.K. wrote that he "would follow the law."
When asked whether the death penalty served any purpose, D.K. wrote "none." Finally, when asked whether he would "ALWAYS" vote for the death penalty, or "ALWAYS" vote for life without parole, or consider all the evidence and instructions and impose the penalty he personally felt appropriate, D.K. went with the third option.
In ordering a new sentencing hearing, the court offered the following analysis.
The parties could have, and should have, examined D.K.’s responses further through voir dire. As the trial court noted in its initial decision to deny the challenge for cause, D.K.’s response that he would follow the law “need[ed] to be explored” and there was nothing to be lost by questioning him in voir dire.
“We simply do not know how [this] potential juror would have responded to appropriate clarifying questions posed to [him] by the trial court. Had the trial court conducted a follow-up examination of [D.K.] and thereafter determined (in light of the questionnaire responses, oral responses, and its own assessment of demeanor and credibility) that the prospective juror’s views would substantially impair the performance of his . . . duties as a juror in this case, the court’s determination would have been entitled to deference.” (People v. Stewart, supra, 33 Cal.4th at pp. 450-451.)
“[U]nder existing United States Supreme Court precedent, the erroneous excusal of a prospective juror for cause based on that person’s views concerning the death penalty automatically compels the reversal of the penalty phase without any inquiry as to whether the error actually prejudiced defendant’s penalty determination.” (People v. Riccardi (2012) 54 Cal.4th 758, 783, citing Gray v. Mississippi (1987) 481 U.S. 648.) Accordingly, “[u]nder compulsion of Gray, we reverse defendant’s penalty phase verdict.” (Riccardi, at p. 783)