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

BOOTH v. MARYLAND 482 U.S. 496 (1987)

Conflicting views on capital punishment emerged in this case dealing with the constitutionality of victim impact statements (VIS). In conformance with state law, the prosecution introduced VIS at the sentencing phase of a capital trial. Those statements described the effects of the crime on the victims and their families. Naturally, they were intensely emotional and, according to the majority of the Court, had the effect of prejudicing the sentencing jury. Dividing 5–4, the Court ruled that the VIS provided information irrelevant to a capital-sentencing decision and that the admission of such statements created a constitutionally unacceptable risk that the jury might impose the death penalty arbitrarily or capriciously. Therefore, according to the Court, the VIS conflicted with the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause. How the murderer could have been exposed to cruel and unusual punishment by the jurors' having listened to statements describing the impact of his crime is mystifying.

Justice byron r. white, for the dissenters, believed that VIS are appropriate evidence in capitalsentencing hearings. Punishment can be increased in noncapital cases on the basis of the harm caused and so might be increased in capital cases. VIS reminded the jurors that just as the murderer ought to be regarded as an individual, so too should the victim whose death constituted a unique loss to his family and the community. Justice antonin scalia, for the same dissenters, contended that the Court's opinion wrongly rested on the principle that the death sentence should be inflicted solely on the basis of moral guilt. He thought the harm done was also relevant. Many people believed that criminal trials favored the accused too much if they did not consider the harm inflicted on the victim and the victim's family. The Court's previous opinions required that all mitigating factors must be placed before the capital-sentencing jury; yet the Court here required the suppression of the suffering caused by the defendant. This muted one side of the debate on the appropriateness of capital punishment.

Leonard W. Levy

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