The Supreme Court, in a decision that may hasten the pace of executions, ruled 6 to 3 yesterday that a defendant's constitutional rights to a fair trial are not violated when prosecutors remove death-penalty opponents from juries.
The ruling, which strikes down one of the last broad legal challenges to the death penalty, rejected arguments that excluding death-penalty opponents unfairly "stacked the deck" against defendants by creating juries more inclined to convict.
Those arguments, based on statistical studies, formed the basis of an appeals court ruling last year that excluding such jurors violated the constitutional rights of a convicted Arkansas murderer to a fair trial.
Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the court in Lockhart v. McCree, said there were "serious flaws" in studies showing that such "death-qualified" juries were more "conviction prone."
Even if the studies were accurate, Rehnquist said, "the Constitution does not prohibit the states from 'death-qualifying' juries" -- removing death-penalty opponents -- in capital cases. The practice is followed in virtually all of the 37 states that use the death penalty.
In other action yesterday, the court agreed to hear arguments next fall on the constitutionality of laws requiring the teaching of "creationism" in the public schools wherever evolution is taught.
Yesterday's case involved Ardia McCree, who was sentenced to life in prison in the 1978 shooting of a gift-shop owner during a robbery. McCree's conviction was overturned by an appeals court because eight death-penalty opponents had been struck from the jury.
The high court ruling, experts said, ratifies that procedure and leaves intact the convictions of 1,714 inmates on death row. It also will lead to immediate dissolution of an estimated several dozen stays granted to inmates pending the outcome of yesterday's case.
Rehnquist said the alternatives proposed by McCree's attorneys, using extra jurors or two separate juries for trial and sentencing, were "hopelessly impractical."
If the "Constitution required a certain mix of individual viewpoints on the jury," Rehnquist said, "then trial judges would be required to undertake the Sisyphean task of 'balancing' juries, making sure that each contains the proper number of Democrats and Republicans, young persons and old persons, white-collar executives and blue-collar workers, and so on."
He said that unlike the unconstitutional exclusion of blacks, women or Hispanics from juries, death-qualification "is carefully designed to serve the state's concededly legitimate interest in obtaining a single jury that can properly and impartially apply the law to the facts of the case at both the guilt and sentencing phases of a capital trial."
The majority opinion drew a harsh dissent from Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and John Paul Stevens.
"With a glib nonchalance ill-suited to the gravity of the issue presented and the power of respondent's claims," Marshall said, "the court upholds a practice that allows the state a special advantage in those prosecutions where the charges are the most serious and the possible punishments the most severe."
The ruling, he said, would "give the prosecution license to empanel a jury especially likely to return that very verdict [of guilty]. Because I believe that such a blatant disregard for the rights of a capital defendant offends logic, fairness, and the Constitution, I dissent."
Yesterday's ruling leaves one major death penalty challenge pending before the high court. That challenge argues that capital punishment is racially biased because those who kill whites are statistically more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill blacks. The justices have not said whether they will consider the case.
If the court rejects that challenge, American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Henry Schwartzchild said yesterday, no others are pending anywhere. For the first time since the penalty was reinstated by the court in 1976, death-penalty opponents would have to "go on a case-by-case basis," he said.
Until 1968, the generally accepted practice was to remove potential jurors who express reservations about the death penalty. But the Supreme Court, in a case called Witherspoon v. Illinois, restricted that practice, saying the only jurors who could be removed were those who could never impose the death penalty and those whose views made it impossible for them to be fair in judging guilt or innocence.
The high court left open then the question it decided yesterday. "They said if you give us enough evidence of unfairness," Schwartzchild said, "we'll take another look. Now [that studies unanimously show the practice is unfair] what they have said is 'we don't care,' " he argued.
Also yesterday, the court:
*Ruled 6 to 3 that constitutional protections against double jeopardy do not prohibit reimposing death sentences on two murderers whose convictions were reversed on their first appeal and who then were convicted again.
Justice Byron R. White, writing for the court in Poland v. Arizona, said that when a conviction is reversed on appeal the "slate is wiped clean" and if a defendant is convicted again, he is subject to whatever penalties are applicable.
*Ruled unanimously that the double-jeopardy clause barred the retrial of a Pennsylvania couple accused of homicide after a trial judge found that the state's case was insufficient to support a conviction.
*Turned down the appeal of suspected serial killer Theodore Bundy, facing execution in Florida for his conviction in the clubbing murders of two sorority sisters. Gov. Robert Graham is expected to sign a new death warrant for Bundy, possibly sending him to the electric chair by June. Bundy is the subject of a network television drama whose second and final episode aired last night.