Booth v. Maryland
482 U.S. 496 (1987)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496 (1987)

Booth v. Maryland

No. 86-5020

Argued March 24, 1987

Decided June 15, 1987

482 U.S. 496

Syllabus

Having found petitioner guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and related crimes, the jury sentenced him to death after considering a presentence report prepared by the State of Maryland. The report included a victim impact statement (VIS), as required by state statute. The VIS was based on interviews with the family of the two victims, and it provided the jury with two types of information. First, it described the severe emotional impact of the crimes on the family, and the personal characteristics of the victims. Second, it set forth the family members' opinions and characterizations of the crimes and of petitioner. The state trial court denied petitioner's motion to suppress the VIS, rejecting the argument that this information was irrelevant, unduly inflammatory, and therefore violative of the Eighth Amendment. The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed petitioner's conviction and sentence, finding that the VIS did not inject an arbitrary factor into the sentencing decision. The court concluded that a VIS serves an important interest by informing the sentencer of the full measure of harm caused by the crime.

Held: 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 it requires consideration of this information. Such 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. Pp. 482 U. S. 503-509.

(a) The State's contention that the presence or absence of emotional distress of the victims' family and the victims' personal characteristics are proper sentencing considerations in a capital case is rejected. In such a case, the sentencing jury must focus on the background and record of the accused and the particular circumstances of the crime. The VIS information in question may be wholly unrelated to the blameworthiness of a particular defendant, and may cause the sentencing decision to turn on irrelevant factors such as the degree to which the victim's family is willing and able to articulate its grief, or the relative worth of the victim's character. Thus, the evidence in question could improperly divert the jury's attention away from the defendant. Moreover, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to provide a fair opportunity to

Page 482 U. S. 497

rebut such evidence without shifting the focus of the sentencing hearing away from the defendant. Pp. 482 U. S. 503-507.

(b) The admission of the family members' emotionally charged opinions and characterizations of the crimes could 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. Such admission is therefore inconsistent with the reasoned decisionmaking required in capital cases. Pp. 482 U. S. 508-509.

306 Md. 172, 507 A.2d 1098, vacated in part and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR and SCALIA, JJ., joined, post, p. 482 U. S. 515. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post p. 482 U. S. 519.

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