APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (Criminal No. 74-20)
Before: SEITZ, Chief Judge, and ALDISERT and GIBBONS, Circuit Judges.
In this appeal from a conviction for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, interstate transportation of a stolen motor vehicle and kidnapping, for which a life sentence was imposed, appellant assigns numerous trial errors. Only one contention merits discussion: whether a district judge, during voir dire of prospective jurors, must inquire, when requested, if the veniremen can accept and will apply the legal proposition that the government must prove every element of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. We find that the failure to ask such questions does not, in and of itself, constitute an abuse of discretion cognizable as reversible error. Accordingly, we affirm.
Appellant was arrested in California and confessed to the burglary of an Erie, Pennsylvania, department store in November 1973, to the armed robberies of two Erie grocery stores on December 12, 1973, and to the kidnapping of taxi driver Stafford during the course of appellant's flight. The government proved to the satisfaction of the jury that Wooton stole Stafford's taxi, drove him to Ohio, marched him from the roadway, and, as Stafford knelt in front of him, shot and killed him. He then drove the cab to Cleveland where he abandoned it and moved westward until apprehended in California. Subsequently, appellant was returned to Pennsylvania.
When the case was called for trial, counsel for appellant submitted a proposed voir dire examination of 42 questions. Four of these related to the reasonable doubt standard:
(30) Can you accept the proposition of law that the government must prove every material element of the crime charged beyond all reasonable doubt and that if the government would fail to meet this burden, it would be your duty to find the defendant not guilty? Can you accept this proposition of law without any mental reservations whatsoever?
(31) If you, in your own individual judgment, came to the conclusion that the government had not proven beyond all reasonable doubt that at the time the defendant committed the crimes in question he was sane and of sound mind, would you have any scruples or difficulty bringing in a verdict of not guilty?
(40) Do you, as an individual, understand the rule of law that says that this defendant, as every defendant in a criminal case, is entitled to your individual judgment and can you follow that rule without any mental reservations whatsoever?
(41) If you came to the conclusion that the government has not proved beyond all reasonable doubt that at the time the defendant committed the crimes in question, he was sane and of sound mind, and you found that a majority of the jury believed that defendant was sane and of sound mind at the time he committed the crimes in question, would you change your vote only because you were in a minority?
The court declined to ask these questions, reasoning*fn1 that the subject would be covered in its charge and by another of defendant's proposed inquiries with which the court agreed:
(42) Do you know of any reason why you should not be seated on this jury, or why if seated, you would not be able to render a fair and impartial verdict based solely upon the evidence presented during the course of this trial and upon the law as the court will give you at the conclusion of this trial?
We begin with the understanding that voir dire is a preliminary examination to ascertain the qualifications of potential jurors as well as any disqualifying bias or prejudice. Literally, the term means ...