Dawson v. Delaware
503 U.S. 159 (1992)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1991

Syllabus

DAWSON v. DELAWARE

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF DELAWARE

No. 90-6704. Argued November 12, 1991-Decided March 9,1992

A Delaware jury convicted petitioner Dawson of first-degree murder and other crimes. At the penalty hearing, the prosecution, inter alia, read a stipulation-"[t]he Aryan Brotherhood refers to a white racist prison gang that began ... in California in response to other gangs of racial minorities. Separate gangs calling themselves the Aryan Brotherhood now exist in many state prisons including Delaware" -despite Dawson's assertion that the admission of the stipulated facts violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and introduced evidence that he had the words "Aryan Brotherhood" tattooed on his hand. The jury found that the aggravating circumstances-that the murder was committed by an escaped prisoner, during the commission of a burglary, and for pecuniary gain-outweighed Dawson's mitigating evidence-that he had shown kindness to family members and had earned good time credits in prison-and made a binding recommendation to the court that he be sentenced to death. The State Supreme Court affirmed.

Held:

1. Dawson's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated by the admission of the Aryan Brotherhood evidence in this case, because the evidence had no relevance to the issues being decided in the proceeding. The Constitution does not erect a per se barrier to the admission of evidence concerning one's beliefs and associations at sentencing simply because those beliefs and associations are protected by the First Amendment. See, e. g., Barclay v. Florida, 463 U. S. 939. However, the narrowness of the stipulation admitted here left the evidence totally without relevance to the sentencing proceeding. The stipulation says nothing about the beliefs of the Delaware prison's chapter of the Aryan Brotherhood. Any racist beliefs the group might hold were not tied in any way to the murder, because Dawson's victim was white, as is Dawson. The evidence proved only the group's and Dawson's abstract beliefs, not that the group had committed or endorsed any unlawful or violent acts. Thus, it was not relevant to help prove any aggravating circumstance. Cf. Texas v. Johnson, 491 U. S. 397, 414. Nor was the evidence relevant to rebut any mitigating evidence, since, while the State was entitled to introduce "bad" character evidence to rebut Dawson's "good" character evidence, see Payne v. Tennessee, 501


160

u. S. 808, 825, the Aryan Brotherhood evidence cannot be viewed as relevant "bad" character evidence in its own right. Pp. 163-168.

2. The question whether the wrongful admission of the Aryan Brotherhood evidence was harmless error is left open for consideration by the State Supreme Court on remand. Pp.168-169.

581 A. 2d 1078, vacated and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 169. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 169.

Bernard J. O'Donnell argued the cause for petitioner.

With him on the briefs was Brian J. Bartley.

Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr., argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Charles M. Oberly III, Attorney General of Delaware, and Gary A. Myers and Loren

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the introduction in a capital sentencing proceeding of the fact that the defendant was a member of an organization called the Aryan Brotherhood, where the evidence has no relevance to the issues being decided in the proceeding. We hold that they do.

Shortly after midnight on December 1, 1986, petitioner David Dawson and three other inmates escaped from the Delaware Correctional Center near Smyrna, Delaware. Dawson stole a car and headed south, while the other three inmates stole another car and drove north. Early that

* Michael A. Bamberger, Stuart Altschuler, John A. Powell, Steven R.

Shapiro, and Jonathan Lang filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.

Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorney General Mueller, Deputy Solicitor General Bryson, and Robert A. Long, Jr., filed a brief for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance.


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Full Text of Opinion

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