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Court Rules Defendants Can’t Question Jurors About Knowledge of Case With AM-Scotus Rdp

May 30, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a criminal defendant has no right to ask potential jurors about what specifics they heard or read about the case.

The justices, by a 5-4 vote, upheld the Virginia murder conviction and death sentence of a man who killed a woman after walking away from a prison work detail in 1988.

The crime became part of a national debate during the 1988 presidential election. That debate focused mainly on Massachusetts prison inmate Willie Horton, a convicted killer who raped a Maryland woman and slashed her husband while on a furlough.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the court, said Dawud Majid Mu’min’s rights were not violated even though eight of the 12 jurors chosen had some prior knowledge of his case.

Rehnquist noted that none of the eight told the presiding judge he or she could not be impartial in determining Mu’min’s guilt or innocence.

″(Mu’min) contends, however, that his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury and his right to due process ... were violated because the trial judge refused to question further prospective jurors about the specific contents of the news reports to which they had been exposed,″ Rehnquist said. ″We reject (that) submission.″

The court’s dissenters said Mu’min’s rights were violated because the trial judge did not press further in determining each juror’s impartiality.

″Today’s decision,″ said a dissenting Justice Thurgood Marshall, ″turns a critical constitutional guarantee ... into a hollow formality.″

Mu’min, also known as David Michael Allen, was serving a 48-year prison term for murder when he walked away from a prison work detail and went to a Dale City, Va., shopping center on Sept. 22, 1988.

There he repeatedly stabbed Gladys Nopwasky before stealing $4 from the carpet and flooring store she owned. Mu’min then returned to the prison work crew.

Rehnquist today acknowledged that the murder case had attracted considerable publicity.

″Any killing that ultimately results in a charge of capital murder will engender considerable media coverage,″ Rehnquist said, ″and this one may have engendered more than most because of its occurrence during the 1988 presidential campaign, when a similar crime committed by a Massachusetts inmate became a subject of national debate.″

But Rehnquist said the publicity in Mu’min’s case did not approach the amount that led the court in 1961 to overturn an Indiana man’s murder conviction and order a new trial in another county.

Rehnquist was joined by Justices Byron R. White, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and David H. Souter.

In addition to Marshall, Justices Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens and Anthony M. Kennedy dissented.

Marshall, writing for himself, Blackmun and Stevens, said, ″A trial court cannot realistically assess the juror’s impartiality without first establishing what the juror already has learned about the case.″

″The procedures employed in this case were wholly insufficient to eliminate the risk that two-thirds of Mu’min’s jury entered the jury box predisposed against him,″ Marshall said.

The judge at Mu’min’s trial asked potential jurors who had heard or read something about the case whether they had reason to question their impartiality. The eight jurors eventually chosen said nothing.

In a separate dissenting opinion, Kennedy said, ″Findings of impartiality must be based on something more than the mere silence of the individual in response to questions asked en masse.″

The case is Mu’min vs. Virginia, 90-5193.

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