The PEOPLE of the State of California, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Lewis EDWARDS, Defendant and Appellant.
A jury convicted appellant Lewis Edwards of first degree murder with special circumstances. (Pen. Code, §§ 187, subd. (a); 190.2, subd. (a)(1) [financial gain].) 1 The jury also found that Edwards used three deadly weapons in the commission of the offense. (§ 12022, subd. (b).) The court struck the special circumstance finding and sentenced him to life imprisonment. The sole issue on appeal is whether Edwards' conviction must be reversed because the trial court refused to allow defense counsel to question prospective jurors about certain topics at voir dire. We are satisfied that the trial court acted within the discretion reserved to it by the California Supreme Court in People v. Williams (1981) 29 Cal.3d 392, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869,2 and that the trial court conducted a legally sufficient voir dire. We therefore affirm the judgment.
Lewis Edwards was convicted of the first degree murder of Henry James Nicol. At the time of the offense, Edwards was 18 years old, Nicol 62. The parties agree that the following facts were elicited at trial. Edwards, who is black, was involved in a homosexual relationship with Nicol, a white man. After a disagreement, Nicol drove Edwards to the young man's apartment house in Novato shortly before dawn on May 6, 1981. Outside the building, Edwards, assisted by a third person, killed Nicol by stabbing him with a steak knife and a kitchen knife, and shooting him with a pellet gun. Edwards had planned to steal a credit card from Nicol. The police arrested Edwards at the scene of the crime.
At voir dire, the trial court precluded defense counsel from asking the potential jurors about the following matters:
1. Whether the juror believed that the criminal justice system is too lenient against persons charged with crimes.
2. If the juror had previously rendered a verdict in a criminal case, whether the juror voted to convict or acquit.
3. Whether the juror was active in, or connected with, any church or organized religion.
4. Whether the juror received any religious training or education.
5. Whether the juror had had any specialized training such as Life Springs, Outward Bound, est, or Scientology.
6. What television programs the juror watched regularly.
7. Whether the juror personally knew any black people.
8. What were the occupations, if any, of the juror's children.
The trial court did ask potential jurors about a number of potential bases for bias or prejudice: connections with law enforcement personnel; attitudes about violent crimes, handguns, and gruesome facts; knowledge of any pretrial publicity about the case; military service; attitudes toward expert testimony, psychology, psychiatry, diminished capacity, and self-defense; attitudes about malice aforethought, the judicial system, lawyers, and judges; moral, religious, philosophical, or political compunctions about jury service; attitudes about homosexuality, and the race difference and age disparity of the victim and the defendant; and the jurors' ability to be fair and impartial.
Edwards contends that the trial court violated the principles of People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d 392, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869 by refusing to allow his defense counsel to ask the eight excluded questions of potential jurors. In Williams, the California Supreme Court ruled that counsel should be allowed to ask questions at voir dire that are reasonably designed to assist in the intelligent exercise of peremptory challenges, regardless of whether these questions are also likely to uncover grounds sufficient to sustain a challenge for cause. (People v. Williams, supra, at p. 407, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869; People v. Helton (1984) 162 Cal.App.3d 1141, 1145, 209 Cal.Rptr. 128.) However, trial judges retain considerable discretion to contain voir dire within reasonable limits. (People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d at p. 408, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869; People v. Helton, supra, 162 Cal.App.3d 1141, 209 Cal.Rptr. 128.) “[T]rial courts need not and should not permit ․ inordinately extensive and unfocused questioning ․” (People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d at p. 408, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869.) (Emphasis added.) We must reconcile these two aspects of Williams. The trial court had the benefit of reading Williams and discussed the two aspects of the case with defense counsel.
A close look at the eight challenged questions reveals that their exclusion was within the trial court's proper exercise of discretion. Questions 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are unfocused—the responses they could elicit could not uncover a possible basis for reasonable exercise of a peremptory challenge beyond that which the court's questions could reveal. Question 2 suggests the possibility of exclusion of those jurors who have already served as jurors in a criminal case simply because they have convicted or acquitted an accused criminal—a practice we cannot be expected to applaud.3 The trial court asked jurors whether he or she had ever served on a jury before, if that jury reached a verdict, and if the juror was satisfied with the jury experience. That inquiry was sufficient. Questions 7 and 8 also inquired into areas that the trial court adequately probed in its voir dire. On the whole, the questions defense counsel would ask differ from those the trial court did ask more in terms of form and tone than substance.
Question 7 asks for information that could conceivably reveal racial prejudice, forming the basis of a challenge for cause. Even so, a meticulous review of the jury voir dire in this case satisfies us that exclusion of this question as “inordinately extensive” was within the trial court's discretion. (See People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d at p. 408, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869.) In his initial comments to potential jurors, the trial judge said that this case involved a black defendant and a white victim, explaining that Edwards' race raised the question of whether any of the potential jurors had any biases or prejudices, or any attitudes that a black person may be more violent than a white person. He told the potential jurors that if they had any feelings regarding race that might intrude on their ability to be jurors, this would be a matter for discussion when the judge individually questioned each potential juror. Question 7 sought to inquire into the same subject. The exclusion of the challenged questions did not preclude any vital line of inquiry.
Immediately after ruling that he would not permit defense counsel to inquire whether each potential juror knew any black people, the trial judge ruled that he would allow defense counsel to ask each whether the juror believed that race had any connection to a propensity to commit crime, especially violent crime, saying “That's an appropriate question.” Contrary to the implication of the dissent, the trial court did not foreclose questioning, but merely restrained it within appropriate limits.
One recent case bears some similarity to this case. In People v. Wells (1983) 149 Cal.App.3d 721, 723–727, 197 Cal.Rptr. 163, a black defendant was accused of murdering a white woman. The trial court precluded defense counsel from inquiring on voir dire about the potential jurors' attitudes about a series of topics, including why they thought there were so few black professional golfers, tennis stars, corporate presidents, and governors. In Wells, the appellate court found that the trial court abused its discretion by disallowing these voir dire questions, concluding that if defense counsel was precluded from asking questions during jury voir dire that are relevant and substantially likely to uncover racial, religious, or ethnic bias, the case must be reversed. (People v. Wells, supra, at p. 726, 197 Cal.Rptr. 163.) The Wells decision assumed the excluded questions were substantially likely to uncover bias, without considering whether the questions were repetitive of other voir dire questions already asked. (See People v. Crowe (1973) 8 Cal.3d 815, 829–830, 106 Cal.Rptr. 369, 506 P.2d 193.) Further, it did not analyze why the error was prejudicial, nor whether, in light of the evidence in the case, the exclusion of the question might have been harmless error. (People v. Wells, supra, 149 Cal.App.3d at pp. 726–727, 197 Cal.Rptr. 163.)
We disagree with the reasoning in Wells. First, the decision assumes that any question about juror attitudes toward blacks is substantially likely to uncover racial prejudice. In the case at hand, a juror who is asked whether he personally knows any black person will invariably answer either “yes” or “no”. This response itself does not provide any information to defense counsel that is substantially likely to reveal bias. In order to determine whether the potential juror is racially prejudiced, defense counsel must continue to ask questions about his or her contact or lack of contact with black people. When asked if he or she personally knows any black person, the juror's simple “yes” or “no” answer does not shed any light on whether the juror might be biased against a black defendant.
Second, taken to its logical conclusion, the Wells ruling unwisely eliminates trial court discretion to foreclose jury voir dire on certain topics even if the questioning is repetitive or unlikely to elicit an illuminating response. Clearly, this holding violates Williams, which, while permitting counsel to make reasonable inquiries at voir dire to assist in the intelligent exercise of peremptory challenges, expressly leaves intact the considerable discretion of the trial court to contain voir dire within reasonable limits.4 Under this standard, trial courts need not and should not permit inordinately extensive and unfocused questioning. (People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d at p. 408, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869.) Williams requires trial courts to give latitude to defendants, but it does not eliminate the trial court's discretion to regulate voir dire.
Finally, Wells does not address the question of the proper standard of review. It assumes that the error in denying defense counsel the right to ask certain questions in order to uncover a basis for a peremptory challenge is prejudicial. (People v. Wells, supra, 149 Cal.App.3d at pp. 726–727, 197 Cal.Rptr. 163.) Assuming arguendo that there was error in Edwards' case, we do not believe that the error would necessarily be reversible per se.
In Williams, the California Supreme Court acknowledges that a reversible error standard is not always appropriate in cases in which there is error in jury selection. The court stated that, although in many contexts a procedure depriving a criminal defendant of the right to secure an impartial jury necessarily dictates reversal, this is not always the case. The Williams court applied the harmless error standard to determine whether the trial court's refusal to allow defense counsel to inquire about a potential juror's attitude toward the law of self-defense was reversible error in a case in which self-defense was the primary defense. (People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d at p. 412, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869.)
Williams held that a reasonable question about a potential juror's willingness to apply a particular doctrine of law should be permitted when, from the nature of the case, the judge is satisfied that the doctrine is likely to be relevant at trial. However, reversal is required only if the doctrine was actually relevant and the appellate court finds the excluded question is substantially likely to expose strong attitudes antithetical to the defendant's cause. (People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d at p. 410, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869.) Although Williams does not state what the standard of review should be in a case other than one involving voir dire on the application of a doctrine of law, we believe that a similar analysis should apply when the excluded question goes to a matter that is not central to the evidentiary issues presented at trial.
Edwards' trial focused on the defendant's mental state at the time of the offense, the fact that he was alleged to have murdered Nicol for financial gain, the homosexuality of the parties, and the disparity between their ages. There was no evidence that this was a racially-motivated crime. The prosecutor said at the beginning of her opening statement, immediately after voir dire was complete: “Now, you will learn from the evidence in this case that although you were questioned repeatedly about the issue of race, race is a non-existent issue in this case․” She was correct. Neither side made more than a passing reference to the race of either Nicol or Edwards during their opening statements and arguments.
This is not a case in which the defendant made a prima facie case that the district attorney used peremptory challenges to exclude all jurors of a particular race (see, e.g., People v. Wheeler (1978) 22 Cal.3d 258, 283, 148 Cal.Rptr. 890, 583 P.2d 748), or the trial court foreclosed all inquiry into a proper topic of questioning. (See, e.g., People v. Carmichael (1926) 198 Cal. 534, 547, 246 P. 62.) Neither did the trial court preclude inquiry pertaining to the primary defense the accused would offer. (See, e.g., People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d 392, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869.) Rather, the trial court simply prevented defense counsel from asking a specific question on a general subject the judge had already covered with each juror. Each potential juror whose response to a general question even suggested a potential bias was thoroughly questioned by the judge. None of the members of the jury panel that ultimately convicted Edwards indicated any sort of racial prejudice. These facts support our conclusion that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when limiting voir dire as it did.
The transcript of the voir dire in this case ran more than 1300 pages. Over the course of nine days, the trial judge questioned over 60 potential jurors to find 14 men and women who were qualified to serve as jurors and alternates in this first degree murder case. A reading of this transcript satisfies us that the voir dire in this case was thorough and fair. Assuming arguendo that there was error, under either the Chapman standard (Chapman v. California (1967) 386 U.S. 18, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705) or the Watson standard (People v. Watson (1956) 46 Cal.2d 818, 299 P.2d 243 cert. den., 355 U.S. 846, 78 S.Ct. 70, 2 L.Ed.2d 55; see Cal.Const., art. VI, § 13; see also People v. Crowe, supra, 8 Cal.3d at pp. 829–831, 106 Cal.Rptr. 369, 506 P.2d 193), the trial court's refusal to allow defense counsel to ask potential jurors if they personally knew any black people in order to uncover a basis for a peremptory challenge could not have been prejudicial error.
We do not agree with the dissent that our opinion means that a trial court's bare inquiry into whether a potential juror has any racial prejudice relieves the trial court of its responsibility under Williams to allow defense counsel to probe for grounds to exercise its peremptory challenges. We merely hold that the questions put forth by defense counsel may be disallowed if they are inordinately extensive, unfocused, or unlikely to elicit a response that will reveal some ground for challenge. In such a situation, Williams makes it clear that the trial court has the authority to contain voir dire within reasonable limits.
All parties involved in this case should be complimented on their conduct at trial. The trial judge was fair and even-handed, eventually striking the special circumstance allegation on Edwards' motion. The prosecutor, faced with a potentially explosive murder case, presented her case with restraint and did not sensationalize it when she argued it to the jury. Defense counsel competently marshalled the facts in an effort to establish a reasonable doubt about Edwards' sanity at the time of the offense—the only real issue in the case. Defense motions and objections abound, creating a thorough record on appeal of all potential grounds for error. Edwards had a fair trial. At its conclusion, the 12 jurors so carefully selected found that Edwards was guilty of first degree murder and that he was sane at the time that he killed Nicol. There is no reason to overturn that decision.
The judgment is affirmed.
The California Supreme Court explained in People v. Williams (1981) 29 Cal.3d 392, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869, that “counsel should be allowed to ask questions reasonably designed to assist in the intelligent exercise of peremptory challenges whether or not such questions are also likely to uncover grounds sufficient to sustain a challenge for cause.” (Id., at p. 407, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869.) In contrast the majority here holds that defense counsel cannot touch the subject of racial bias once the direct question—Do you have any racial prejudice?—has been asked. I cannot square that with Williams. Nor do I understand why a frontal attack is launched on the reasoning of People v. Wells (1983) 149 Cal.App.3d 721, 197 Cal.Rptr. 163, since that decision merely follows Williams. I therefore dissent.
Prior to Williams, criminal attorneys in this state were prohibited from using voir dire as a means to uncover grounds for peremptory challenges; they were limited to asking questions material to a challenge for cause. (See, e.g., People v. Edwards (1912) 163 Cal. 752, 753, 127 P. 58.) “ ‘Thus a juror who swore he would judge the case solely on the evidence presented at trial was taken at his word, no matter what his actual predisposition might have been.’ (Note, Voir Dire: Establishing Minimum Standards to Facilitate the Exercise of Peremptory Challenges (1975) 27 Stan.L.Rev. 1493, 1495.)” (People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d at p. 401, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869.)
In the view of our Supreme Court, that restrictive rule of 1912 no longer makes sense, “in light of the unassailable truth that direct and general inquiries about juror bias cannot be expected to uncover all forms of partiality. [¶ ] Our courts have become increasingly aware that bias often deceives its host by distorting his view not only of the world around him, but also of himself. Hence although we must presume that a potential juror is responding in good faith when he asserts broadly that he can judge the case impartially [citation], further interrogation may reveal bias of which he is unaware or which, because of his impaired objectivity, he unreasonably believes he can overcome. And although his protestations of impartiality may immunize him from a challenge for cause [citation], they should not foreclose further reasonable questioning that might expose bias on which prudent counsel would base a peremptory challenge.” (People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d at pp. 401–402, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869, emphasis added, fns. omitted.)
Thus, Williams criticized the anachronistic and artificial rule of Edwards because it ignores the need of counsel to search for and ferret out subtle manifestations of bias and it is premised on the notion that blunt questions directed only at overt prejudice will sufficiently aid counsel in that search. Accordingly, the Williams court threw out the old rule and announced that counsel may now “ask questions reasonably designed to assist in the intelligent exercise of peremptory challenges whether or not such questions are also likely to uncover grounds sufficient to sustain a challenge for cause.” (Id., at p. 407, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869, emphasis added.)
The Williams rule does not eliminate the power of the trial court to “contain voir dire within reasonable limits.” (Id., at p. 408, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869, emphasis added.) But containing the range of questioning is different in kind from eliminating questioning, which is what occurred here. To refuse to allow counsel to pose questions which are relevant and which are substantially likely to uncover racial or ethnic bias infringes on the constitutional right to be tried by a fair and impartial jury. (Id., at p. 405, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869.)
Here defense counsel wished to explore racial bias of the jurors, in light of the fact that the victim was white, the defendant was black, the victim was an older man, the defendant a youth. The following colloquy occurred:
“[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: ․ I wanted to ask the Jurors whether they knew any black people.
“THE COURT: No. I'm not going to let you get into any of that.
“[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Well, I'm making this my way of an offer of questions․ And in what way they knew black people and what their associations were. I wanted to ask the jurors whether they had any beliefs or regarding—
“THE COURT: You know, ․ those kinds of questions have the prospect of making this a race case.
“[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: That's not my intention, Judge.
“THE COURT: I know. I know it isn't your intention, but those kinds of questions have the prospect connected with them of making the people concentrate on the fact that Mr. Edwards is black because most jurors really don't give much of a darn one way or the other, and black jurors convict black people and white people convict white people and vice-a-versa; but, the defense attorney sits there and spends 20 minutes or 25 minutes asking people: ‘Do you know any black people?’ And ‘how long have you known any black people?’ Until the Jury finally really does develop some strong attitudes about blacks because the attorney gets them so upset by pursuing it that they develop prejudice about black defendants.
“[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: There are some people who are extremely prejudice[d] about black people, ․ Chinese people and Japanese people, and some people do not fully admit that bias and prejudice because they are fearful of it.
“THE COURT: That's right, and we will find them with some broad and general questions but I'm not going to let you conduct a private inquiry with every juror and you had better believe it.”
My majority colleagues give two reasons for finding no problem with the trial court's restrictions.
First they characterize counsel's questions as an attempt to inquire into the “same subject” matter discussed by the trial court when it questioned each juror. (Majority opn., ante, p. 621.) Was it? The trial court asked the jurors questions designed to ferret out overt racial prejudice.1 In other words, the trial court's questioning was directed to revealing grounds for challenges for cause. In contrast the questions proposed by defense counsel were designed to uncover more subtle signs of bias as well as signs of unconscious bias. Quite probably responses to that type of questioning would not reveal grounds for a challenge for cause. But allowing such questioning would have aided counsel in determining whether to exercise a peremptory challenge, which is exactly what Williams allows. Such an inquiry was not satisfied by the trial court's questions, nor can counsel's inquiry be fairly characterized as “inordinately extensive.” (See Majority opn., ante, p. 622, emphasis in original.)
Next the majority finds fault with the questions because a response of either “ ‘yes' ” or “ ‘no’ ”, in their view, “does not provide any information to defense counsel that is substantially likely to reveal bias” and “does not shed any light on whether the juror might be biased against a black defendant.” (See Majority opn., ante, p. 622.) Presumably, under the majority's view, follow-up questions during voir dire are prohibited. But even if counsel can be properly restricted to asking that one question, I suspect that if a juror answers “no,” defense counsel might well decide to peremptorily challenge that juror. For example, if a potential juror admits he or she has had no contact with persons of the defendant's race that does not establish that the juror is biased, but prudent counsel might conclude that such a juror would be less than comfortable with the notion of an inter-racial sexual relationship. In short, counsel's question was reasonably designed to assist in the exercise of peremptory challenges, and under Williams, it was proper.
Finally, I must address the majority's condemnation of People v. Wells, supra, 149 Cal.App.3d 721, 197 Cal.Rptr. 163, with respect to the standard of prejudice for this type of error. (Majority opn., ante, p. 622.) Again, reference must be made to Williams.
There the high court stated: “Although in many contexts a procedure depriving defendant of the right to secure an impartial jury necessarily dictates reversal (see, e.g., People v. Wheeler  22 Cal.3d 258, 283, 148 Cal.Rptr. 890, 583 P.2d 748; People v. Carmichael  198 Cal. 534, 547, 246 P.62), that standard should not apply if the potential for bias relates only to a particular doctrine of law. When antipathy to a legal rule is the issue, its potential effect is limited by the significance of the rule to the case's outcome.” (People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d at p. 412, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869.)
Put simply, Williams holds that a harmless error test can apply to a case where the excluded questions touch on bias toward a particular rule of law. That analysis makes sense because the reviewing court has an objective basis for determining whether the bias affected the outcome of the case: it looks to whether the rule of law had any application to the case as presented to the jury. For example, if defense counsel was prevented from inquiring into juror bias with respect to the defense of diminished capacity, and either little or no evidence of diminished capacity was presented to the jurors, a reviewing court could comfortably and reasonably conclude that the error was harmless.
How can that be done where the excluded questions touch on subjective and hidden bias directed toward the defendant himself? I submit it cannot be done, and therefore, as I read Williams, improper restriction on questioning in that area is reversible per se.
The majority here, however, does not adopt that view. Instead it looks to see whether the crime was racially motivated. If it was not, then the error can be deemed harmless because “the excluded question goes to a matter that is not central to the evidentiary issues presented at trial.” (Majority opn., ante, p. 623.) If that analysis is correct, it is harmless error to exclude black persons from juries in violation of People v. Wheeler (1978) 22 Cal.3d 258, 148 Cal.Rptr. 890, 583 P.2d 748, so long as the underlying crime is not racially motivated. I doubt that is what the California Supreme Court had in mind.
1. All statutory references are to the Penal Code.
2. The Williams rule applies to this case; jury voir dire proceedings were conducted after Williams became final. (See People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d at p. 412, fn. 15, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869; see also People v. Cooks (1983) 141 Cal.App.3d 224, 299–300, 190 Cal.Rptr. 211, cert. den. sub nom., Green v. California (1984) 464 U.S. 1046, 104 S.Ct. 718, 79 L.Ed.2d 180.)
3. For the first time in his petition for rehearing, Edwards contends that the California Supreme Court has approved use of voir dire to determine how jurors voted in previous criminal cases, citing People v. Murtishaw (1981) 29 Cal.3d 733, 765–767, fns. 26–27, 175 Cal.Rptr. 738, 631 P.2d 446, cert. den., 455 U.S. 922, 102 S.Ct. 1280, 71 L.Ed.2d 464.) The issue in Murtishaw was discovery, not voir dire and, on this record, we cannot determine whether Edwards obtained this information by a discovery motion. Murtishaw indicates that much of the information that that defendant sought was available from the expanded voir dire possible after People v. Williams, supra, 29 Cal.3d 392, 174 Cal.Rptr. 317, 628 P.2d 869. Murtishaw does not hold that this voir dire may be used to determine how potential jurors, having previously served on a criminal jury, voted in that earlier case.
4. “Close scrutiny of the Williams rationale compels the conclusion that the court intends reasonableness to be the criterion for evaluating the propriety of voir dire examination.” Note, People v. Williams: Expansion of the Permissible Scope of Voir Dire in the California Courts (1982) 15 Loyola L.A.L.Rev. 381, 400–401.
1. The court posed its questions differently to each juror, by the following random sample of questions provides the gist of it:“What about racial attitudes? Do you have any feelings about race that might intrude itself as you sit here and decide it? Do you see any difference at all because the defendant is black?”“Racial attitudes. Have you any biases or prejudices ․ [t]hat might affect your ability to deal fairly with the defendant who is not of our own race?”“Any problems with the racial characteristics of the defendant?”“How about his race?”“Any racial feelings that might interfere with your exercise of pure judgment in this matter? ․ Any feelings like—the other fellow, the other day said about proclivity for one race ․ to act in a certain way as compared to another. Any feelings like that?”“Any feelings about his race ․?”
CHANNELL, Associate Justice.
ANDERSON, P.J., concurs.