Is the Introduction of Victim Impact Evidence
During the Sentencing Phase of a Death Penalty Case
a Violation of the Eighth Amendment,
i.e., "Cruel and Unusual" Punishment?

To Be Decided: April 12, 2002
By the Philosophy of Law Class



This page is designed to enhance your preparation for Paper Topic Number Two for PHILOSOPHY OF LAW, entitled "Taking A Bite Out of Crime". On this page, you will find links to supplemental information on this topic, as well as a link to the on-line forum, where you may discuss the issues with other members of the class, your T. A. and with Professor Teuber himself! You should also feel free to consult parents and friends.

ONLINE FORUM -- NOTE: Click here and you'll be directed to the page for the ONLINE FORUM.

Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496 (1987) -- Having found a defendant guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery in connection with the robbery and murder of an elderly couple in their home, a Maryland state court jury sentenced him to death after considering a presentence report compiled by the state division of parole and probation. As required by a Maryland statute, the report included a victim impact statement (VIS), which described the personal characteristics of the victims and the emotional impact of the crimes on the family, and set forth the family members' opinions and characterizations of the crimes and the defendant. The state trial court (1) refused to suppress the VIS, (2) rejected the defendant's contention that the VIS was irrelevant and unduly inflammatory and that therefore its use in a capital case violated the Eighth Amendment of the Federal Constitution, and (3) ruled that the jury was entitled to consider any and all evidence which would bear on the sentencing decision. The jury sentenced the defendant to death for one of the murders and to life imprisonment for the other murder. The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions and sentences, holding that a VIS serves an important interest by informing the sentencer of the full measure of harm caused by the crime. In an opinion by Powell, J., joined by Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens, JJ., it was held that the introduction of a VIS at the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial violates the Eighth Amendment and therefore the Maryland statute is invalid to the extent that it requires consideration of this information, because this information is irrelevant to a capital sentencing decision and its admission creates a constitutionally unacceptable risk that the jury may impose the death penalty in an arbitrary and capricious manner, in that: (1) since the focus of a VIS is not on the defendant, but on the character and reputation of the victim and the effect on his family, factors which may be wholly unrelated to the blameworthiness of a particular defendant, allowing the jury to rely on a VIS therefore could result (a) in imposing the death sentence because of factors - such as the degree to which a family is willing and able to express its grief, or the relative worth of the victim's character - about which the defendant was unaware and that were irrelevant to the decision to kill, and (b) in diverting the jury's attention away from the defendant's background and record and from the circumstances of the crime; (2) it would be difficult, if not impossible, to provide a fair opportunity to rebut the evidence contained in the VIS without shifting the focus of the sentencing hearing away from the defendant; and (3) the formal presentation by the state of the information in the VIS can serve no other purpose than to inflame the jury and divert it from deciding the case on the relevant evidence concerning the crime and the defendant, the admission of the VIS being inconsistent with the reasoned decisionmaking required in capital cases.

South Carolina v. Gathers, 490 U.S. 805 (1989) -- A defendant was charged with murder and first-degree criminal sexual conduct, and was tried in the Court of General Sessions for Charleston County, South Carolina, on the basis of an incident in which, after he and three other youths had encountered another man, a self-proclaimed preacher, in a wooded section of a park at night and had beaten the man on the head with a bottle, the defendant perforated the man's rectum with an umbrella and stabbed him with a knife. The youths, looking for something to steal, had also rummaged through the victim's belongings, which consisted mainly of some bibles and various other religious tracts and articles, and scattered them on the ground; these items were introduced into evidence without objection at the guilt phase of the trial, but no reference was made at that time to the content of the papers. After the defendant was convicted, a sentencing hearing was held in which the prosecutor, during his closing argument, (1) commented on the fact that the victim had been a religious man, (2) read a prayer that had been printed on one of the victim's cards, (3) noted that the victim had been a vulnerable man with a history of mental problems which prevented him from holding a job, and (4) pointed to a voter registration card which the victim had been carrying as indicating the victim's belief in his community and his country. The defendant was sentenced to death; but the Supreme Court of South Carolina, while affirming the defendant's conviction, reversed the sentence and remanded the case for a new sentencing hearing, as it ruled that the prosecutor's closing argument had violated the rule of Booth v Maryland (1987), by focusing extensively on the personal characteristics of the victim. In an opinion by Brennan, J., joined by White, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens, JJ., it was held that the defendant's death sentence was invalid as a result of the prosecutor's comments, because those comments (1) were indistinguishable in any relevant respect from those involved in the Booth case, and (2) were not within a possible exception for information which relates directly to the circumstances of the crime, since (a) the prosecutor went well beyond describing the relevant circumstance that the victim's papers had been scattered around his body as the defendant went through them looking for something to steal, and (b) the contents of the victim's papers are not relevant to the circumstances of the crime or to the defendant's moral culpability, given the absence of any evidence that the defendant was aware of those contents and the unlikelihood that he was so aware in view of the darkness of the crime scene.

Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991) -- In an opinion by Rehnquist, Ch. J., joined by White, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Souter, JJ., it was held, overruling Booth and Gathers, that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit a jury from considering, at the sentencing phase of a capital trial, "victim impact" evidence relating to a victim's personal characteristics and the emotional impact of the murder on the victim's family, nor does the Eighth Amendment bar a prosecutor from arguing such evidence at the sentencing phase, because (1) the contrary holdings of Booth and Gathers were based on two premises: that evidence relating to a particular victim or to the harm that a capital defendant causes to a victim's family does not in general reflect on the defendant's "blameworthiness," and that only evidence relating to "blameworthiness" is relevant to the capital sentencing decision; (2) however, the assessment of harm caused by the defendant as a result of the crime charged has long been an important concern of the criminal law, in determining both the elements of the offense and the appropriate punishment; (3) victim impact evidence is simply another form or method of informing the sentencing authority about the specific harm caused by the crime in question, evidence of a general type long considered by sentencing authorities; and (4) Booth and Gathers (a) were decided by the narrowest of margins, over spirited dissents challenging the basic underpinnings of those decisions, (b) have been questioned by members of the Supreme Court, and (c) have defied consistent application by the lower courts.

Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1976) -- The Supreme Court provided the modern setting for the debate over the applicability of th death penalty in its landmark decision Furman v. Georgia. In Furman, the Court held that a Georgia statute that gave a jury absolute and unguided discretion to impose the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment. The Court issued the holding in Furman by a cursory per curiam opinion; each of the five concurring justices wrote a separate opinion. Justices Brennan and Marshall each concluded that capital punishment violates the Eighth Amendment. Justices Douglas, Stewart, and White each concurred on much narrower grounds: they would have held that the death penalty is violative of the Eighth Amendment only when it is imposed capriciously. n61 Because the Justices wrote five separate opinions, the law became unclear as to when capital sentencing would violate the Eighth Amendment.

Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) -- Four years later, the Court held in Gregg v. Georgia that the death penalty did not violate the Eighth Amendment per se. The statute at issue demanded two separate trials: an innocent/guilt phase and a sentencing phase; following the guilt phase, the court would hold a sentencing hearing to weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The Court affirmed the notion that capital punishment may be an appropriate punishment in extreme cases, as an expression of society's belief that some offenses are so grievous an affront to humanity that death is an appropriate response. The Court in Gregg, however, reaffirmed the Furman Court's notion that when a sentencing body is afforded discretion on a matter so grave as the determination of whether to impose the death penalty, that discretion must be suitably directed and limited so as to minimize the risk of an arbitrary and capricious imposition of death.

Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976) -- The Court decided Woodson v. North Carolina on the same day that it decided Gregg. In an attempt to conform with Furman, the North Carolina Legislature had revised its statutes to make capital punishment mandatory for certain offenses. These statutes were at issue in Woodson. The Court struck down the North Carolina legislative scheme because it failed to treat the defendants as uniquely individual human beings; rather, the Court ruled that the North Carolina statutes treated defendants as members of a faceless, undifferentiated mass to be subjected to the blind infliction of the penalty of death. Hence, the Woodson Court promoted individualized sentencing.

Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978) -- The Woodson and Gregg decisions articulated two goals, which are somewhat conflicting. On the one hand, the Furman and Gregg Courts instructed state legislatures to direct juries when to impose the death penalty, while on the other hand the Woodson Court instructed the legislatures not to dictate to juries when to impose the death penalty. Through this tension a principle of "guided discretion" appeared, by which the state provided a jury with a list of aggravating and mitigating circumstances upon which it should base its sentencing decision. While the Court never has resolved this tension explicitly, in Lockett v. Ohio it indicated that promoting individualized sentencing is the more important of the two goals. The two goals can be phrased as (1) evenhanded capital sentencing (neither arbitrary nor capricious), and (2) individualized capital sentencing. The Court held that the sentencing authority cannot be prevented from considering, as a mitigating factor, any aspect of the defendant's character nor any of the circumstances of the crime that the defendant offers as a basis for imposing a sentence less than death and that the sentencing authority always must consider all mitigating factors except in the rarest kind of capital case.

The Constitution of the United States -- We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America . . ."

Victims of Violent Crime Resources -- Links to victims of crime resources throughout the United States:

Prepared: March 19, 2002 - 5:02:29 PM
Edited and Updated, March 22, 2002

Back to
Philosophy of Law
Home Page