Booth v. Maryland 1987

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Booth v. Maryland 1987

Petitioner: John Booth

Respondent: State of Maryland

Petitioner's Claim: That Maryland violated the Eighth Amendment by letting the jury hear evidence about how his crime affected his victim's family.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: George E. Burns, Jr.

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Charles O. Monk II, Deputy Attorney General of Maryland

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., John Paul Stevens

Justices Dissenting: Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Byron R. White

Date of Decision: June 15, 1987

Decision: The Supreme Court reversed Booth's death sentence.

Significance: With Booth, the Supreme Court said it is cruel and unusual to let juries hear evidence about how a murder affected the victim's family.

Using the death penalty, governments kill people as punishment for crime. In the United States, most states allow the death penalty for first degree murder. Before 1972, most states allowed juries to decide death penalty cases with no guidance. Juries had total control to choose life or death for defendants who committed murder.

The Eighth Amendment prevents the government from using cruel and unusual punishments. In Furman v. Georgia (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court said death penalty laws that give juries total control are cruel and unusual. The Court said juries must be guided to decide between life or death based on the defendant's character, his background, and the circumstances of the murder he committed.

As violent crime increased in the 1980s, a victims rights movement began in the United States. The movement's goal was to make sure the criminal justice system takes care of victims instead of just protecting the rights of defendants and criminals. During this movement, many states passed laws allowing juries to hear victim impact evidence during the sentencing phase of death penalty cases. Victim impact evidence is information that tells the jury how a murder has affected the victim's family and community. In Booth v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether victim impact evidence violates the Eighth Amendment.

Killing for Drugs

Irvin Bronstein, 78, and his wife Rose, 75, lived a happy life of retirement in West Baltimore, Maryland. John Booth lived three houses away in the same neighborhood. In 1983, Booth and Willie Reid entered the Bronsteins' home to steal money to buy heroin. During the crime, Booth and Reid bound and gagged the Bronsteins and then stabbed them to death with a kitchen knife. The Bronsteins' son found his dead parents two days later.

Booth and Reid faced separate trials in Maryland. The jury convicted Booth of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery. Maryland's prosecutor requested the death penalty, and Booth chose to have the jury make the decision. A Maryland law required the prosecutor to prepare a victim impact statement (VIS) before the death penalty hearing. The purpose of the VIS was to describe the effect the crime had on the Bronsteins' family.

The prosecutor prepared a VIS based on interviews with the Bronsteins' son, daughter, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. The Bronsteins' son, who discovered his murdered parents, said they were "butchered like animals." He said he suffered from lack of sleep and depression ever since finding them. The Bronsteins' daughter also suffered from lack of sleep and constant crying. She felt like a part of her died with her parents and that the joy in life was gone. The Bronsteins' granddaughter told how a family wedding four days after the murders was ruined. The Bronsteins expressed their desire that Booth be put to death.

The prosecutor read the VIS at Booth's death penalty hearing. Booth objected, arguing that it would prevent the jury from fairly deciding whether he deserved to die. The trial court rejected this objection and the jury sentenced Booth to death. Booth appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals, again arguing that the VIS was cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment. The court disagreed and said the VIS helped the jury determine the punishment Booth deserved based on the harm he had done. Booth took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Focus on the Criminal

With a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed Booth's death sentence. Writing for the Court, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., said the jury's job in a death penalty case is to decide whether the criminal deserves to die based on his character and background and the circumstances of the murder. The jury is supposed to focus on the criminal's personal responsibility and moral guilt. Victim impact statements make the jury focus on the victim instead of the criminal.

Powell said murderers usually have no idea how their crimes will affect their victims' families. That means those effects have nothing to do with a criminal's blameworthiness. Victim impact evidence makes juries evaluate how much a victim is worth. That implies that people deserve to die more when they kill a valuable person who has a big family than when they kill a bad person who is alone. That did not feel right to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court said the death penalty is cruel and unusual when given by a jury that has been inflamed by victim impact evidence. Because the jury received such evidence in Booth's case, his death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment and had to be reversed.

Make the Punishment Fit the Crime

Four justices dissented, which means they disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice Byron R. White said that "just as the murderer should be considered as an individual, so too the victim is an individual whose death represents a unique loss to society and in particular to his family." Justice Antonin Scalia agreed. He said the jury's job is to determine whether a murderer deserves to die. How can the jury do that without knowing the harm the murderer did to his victim's family.


The murderers in Booth v. Maryland were stealing money to buy heroin, an illegal narcotic drug. Studies show a link between crime and frequent drug use. In a 1988 study, eighty-two percent of daily narcotic drug users said they committed some form of property crime, such as theft, shoplifting, and burglary. Violent crime, such as assault, robbery, rape, and murder, was less frequent among narcotic drug users.

Crime among non-narcotic drug users is a little different. Studies say cocaine users frequently commit both property and violent crime. In a 1991 study of 1,725 teenagers, cocaine users accounted for sixty percent of minor thefts, fifty-seven percent of felony thefts, forty-one percent of robberies, and twenty-eight percent of felony assaults. By contrast, people who use marijuana do not appear to commit more crime than non-users. In fact, there is evidence that marijuana use reduces violent crime.


Booth was a setback for the victims rights movement in the United States. Four years later, however, the Supreme Court decided Payne v. Tennessee (1991). In Payne, the jury was allowed to hear evidence about how a mother's murder affected her son, who was with her and injured himself while his mother was killed. The Supreme Court said that because the boy was one of the victims, it did not violate the Eighth Amendment to tell the jury how the crime affected his life.

Suggestions for further reading

Almonte, Paul. Capital Punishment. New York: Crestwood House, 1991.

Gottfried, Ted. Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty Debate. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.

Henson, Burt M., and Ross R. Olney. Furman v. Georgia: The Death Penalty and the Constitution. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1996.

Herda, D.J. Furman v. Georgia: The Death Penalty Case. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Jaffe, Jerome H., ed. Encyclopedia of Drugs and Alcohol. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1995.

Nardo, Don. Death Penalty. Lucent Books, 1992.

O'Sullivan, Carol. The Death Penalty: Identifying Propaganda Techniques. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1989.

Steins, Richard. The Death Penalty: Is It Justice? Twenty First Century Books, 1995.

Tushnet, Mark. The Death Penalty. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Wawrose, Susan C. The Death Penalty: Seeking Justice in a Civilized Society. Millbrook Press, 2000.

Winters, Paul A., ed. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.

Wolf, Robert V. Capital Punishment. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1997.

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Booth v. Maryland 1987

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