CRIMINAL LAW – Pro se representation; death penalty voir dire and challenges: Jerry Bernard Winstead v. Commonwealth of Kentucky Court of Justice (SC 5/21/2009)

Jerry Bernard Winstead v. Commonwealth of Kentucky Court of Justice
2007-SC-000425-MR May 21, 2009
Opinion by Justice Abramson. All sitting; all concur.

Winstead was convicted of murder and first degree robbery and sentenced to concurrent terms of life without parole and twenty years. On appeal, Winstead argued that he had been denied his right to 2 represent himself at trial. The Supreme Court noted that there is a strong presumption against the waiver of counsel, which can only be overcome by a clear and unequivocal invocation of the right to represent one’s self. The Court concluded that Winstead’s pro se discovery motions and letter to the trial court expressing dissatisfaction with his appointed counsel did not amount to much an invocation—thus there was no error.

The Court also rejected Winstead’s argument that Juror #29 should have been struck for cause since he said Winstead’s poverty and family history would not affect his sentencing decision. The Court held potential jurors are to be struck for cause if they would automatically vote for the death penalty regardless of mitigating evidence, however that right does not extend to disqualifying a potential juror who would give no weight to a particular mitigating factor. The juror in question had said he would not automatically vote to impose the death penalty and would consider mitigating evidence. The Court observed that Winstead was not entitled to jurors who were bound to weigh mitigating evidence in his favor.

 Winstead also argued that he had been denied his constitutional right to voir dire potential jurors on the issue of racial prejudice. Winstead had sought to ask broad questions designed to elicit racial attitudes (e.g. “How would you react to an interracial romantic relationship in your family?”), but the trial court limited the questions to the racial aspects of the case (e.g. “Would the fact that individuals in this case were involved in interracial relationships have any bearing on your judgment?”). The Supreme Court found no abuse of discretion in limiting the extent of the questioning since it did not render the trial fundamentally unfair. The Court noted that Winstead was allowed to ask questions that afforded him the opportunity to assess verbal responses and demeanor regarding the racial facets of the case.

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