Booth v. Maryland, No. 86-5020

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtPOWELL
Citation107 S.Ct. 2529,482 U.S. 496,96 L.Ed.2d 440
Decision Date15 June 1987
Docket NumberNo. 86-5020
PartiesJohn BOOTH, Petitioner v. MARYLAND

482 U.S. 496
107 S.Ct. 2529
96 L.Ed.2d 440
John BOOTH, Petitioner

v.

MARYLAND.

No. 86-5020.
Argued March 24, 1987.
Decided June 15, 1987.
Rehearing Denied Sept. 21, 1987.

See 483 U.S. 1056, 108 S.Ct. 31.

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. 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 497

rebut such evidence without shifting the focus of the sentencing hearing away from the defendant. Pp. 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. 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. ----. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. ----.

George E. Burns, Jr., Baltimore, Md., for petitioner.

Charles O. Monk, II, Baltimore, Md., for respondent.

Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether the Constitution prohibits a jury from considering a "victim impact statement" during the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial.

I

In 1983, Irvin Bronstein, 78, and his wife Rose, 75, were robbed and murdered in their West Baltimore home. The murderers, John Booth and Willie Reid, entered the victims'

Page 498

home for the apparent purpose of stealing money to buy heroin. Booth, a neighbor of the Bronsteins, knew that the elderly couple could identify him. The victims were bound and gagged, and then stabbed repeatedly in the chest with a kitchen knife. The bodies were discovered two days later by the Bronsteins' son.

A jury found Booth guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery.1 The prosecution requested the death penalty, and Booth elected to have his sentence determined by the jury instead of the judge. See Md.Ann.Code, Art. 27, § 413(b) (1982). Before the sentencing phase began, the State Division of Parole and Probation (DPP) compiled a presentence report that described Booth's background, education and employment history, and criminal record. Under a Maryland statute, the presentence report in all felony cases 2 also must include a victim impact statement (VIS), describing the effect of the crime on the victim and his family. Md.Ann.Code, Art. 41, § 4-609(c) (1986). Specifically, the report shall:

"(i) Identify the victim of the offense;

"(ii) Itemize any economic loss suffered by the victim as a result of the offense;

Page 499

"(iii) Identify any physical injury suffered by the victim as a result of the offense along with its seriousness and permanence;

"(iv) Describe any change in the victim's personal welfare or familial relationships as a result of the offense;

"(v) Identify any request for psychological services initiated by the victim or the victim's family as a result of the offense; and

"(vi) Contain any other information related to the impact of the offense upon the victim or the victim's family that the trial court requires." § 4-609(c)(3).

Although the VIS is compiled by the DPP, the information is supplied by the victim or the victim's family. See §§ 4-609(c)(4), (d). The VIS may be read to the jury during the sentencing phase, or the family members may be called to testify as to the information.

The VIS in Booth's case was based on interviews with the Bronsteins' son, daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter. Many of their comments emphasized the victims' outstanding personal qualities, and noted how deeply the Bronsteins would be missed.3 Other parts of the VIS described the emotional and personal problems the family members have faced as a result of the crimes. The son, for example, said

Page 500

that he suffers from lack of sleep and depression, and is "fearful for the first time in his life." App. 61. He said that in his opinion, his parents were "butchered like animals." Ibid. The daughter said she also suffers from lack of sleep, and that since the murders she has become withdrawn and distrustful. She stated that she can no longer watch violent movies or look at kitchen knives without being reminded of the murders. The daughter concluded that she could not forgive the murderer, and that such a person could "[n]ever be rehabilitated." Id., at 62. Finally, the granddaughter described how the deaths had ruined the wedding of another close family member that took place a few days after the bodies were discovered. Both the ceremony and the reception were sad affairs, and instead of leaving for her honeymoon, the bride attended the victims' funeral. The VIS also noted that the granddaughter had received counseling for several months after the incident, but eventually had stopped because she concluded that "no one could help her." Id., at 63.

The DPP official who conducted the interviews concluded the VIS by writing:

"It became increasingly apparent to the writer as she talked to the family members that the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Bronstein is still such a shocking, painful, and devastating memory to them that it permeates every aspect of their daily lives. It is doubtful that they will ever be able to fully recover from this tragedy and not be haunted by the memory of the brutal manner in which their loved ones were murdered and taken from them." Id., at 63-64.4

Defense counsel moved to suppress the VIS on the ground that this information was both irrelevant and unduly inflammatory, and that therefore its use in a capital case violated

Page 501

the Eighth Amendment of the Federal Constitution.5 The Maryland trial court denied the motion, ruling that the jury was entitled to consider "any and all evidence which would bear on the [sentencing decision]." Id., at 6. Booth's lawyer then requested that the prosecutor simply read the VIS to the jury rather than call the family members to testify before the jury. Defense counsel was concerned that the use of live witnesses would increase the inflammatory effect of the information. The prosecutor agreed to this arrangement.

The jury sentenced Booth to death for the murder of Mr. Bronstein and to life imprisonment for the murder of Mrs. Bronstein. On automatic appeal, the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and the sentences. 306 Md. 172, 507 A.2d 1098 (1986). The court rejected Booth's claim that the VIS injected an arbitrary factor into the sentencing decision. The court noted that it had considered this argument in Lodowski v. State, 302 Md. 691, 490 A.2d 1228 (1985), vacated on other grounds, 475 U.S. 1078, 106 S.Ct. 1452, 89 L.Ed.2d 711 (1986), and concluded that a VIS serves an important interest by informing the sentencer of the full measure of harm caused by the crime. The Court of Appeals then examined the VIS in Booth's case, and concluded that it is a "relatively straightforward and factual description of the effects of these murders on members of the Bronstein family." 306 Md., at 223, 507 A.2d, at 1124. It held that the death sentence had not been imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or other arbitrary factors. See Md.Ann.Code, Art. 27, § 414(e)(1) (1982).

We granted certiorari to decide whether the Eighth...

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1125 practice notes
  • Resnover v. Pearson, Civ. No. S88-128.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Indiana
    • January 14, 1991
    ...ruled that introducing "victim impact statements" at a hearing on the death sentence violates the Eighth Amendment. In Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 107 S.Ct. 2529, 96 L.Ed.2d 440 (1987), reh. denied, 483 U.S. 1056, 108 S.Ct. 31, 97 L.Ed.2d 820 (1987), a state statute required the jury t......
  • Fautenberry v. Mitchell, No. 05-3568.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • January 25, 2008
    ...who sentenced Fautenberry "contemplated or relied upon the victim-impact evidence which was available to them." Id. In Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 509, 107 S.Ct. 2529, 96 L.Ed.2d 440 (1987), the Supreme Court held that the introduction of victim-impact evidence "at the sentencing phase......
  • Williams v. Chrans, No. 87 C 02084.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Northern District of Illinois)
    • July 5, 1990
    ...hearing, the court allowed certain testimony that Williams characterizes as inadmissible victim impact evidence under Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 107 S.Ct. 2529, 96 L.Ed.2d 440 (1987). A probation officer recited the following portion of a presentence investigation Personal injury was ......
  • Lowenfield v. Phelps, No. 86-6867
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • January 13, 1988
    ...last Term that practices entirely appropriate in other contexts may be improper in capital sentencing proceedings. See Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 509, n. 12, 107 S.Ct. 2529, 2536, n. 12, 96 L.Ed.2d 440 (1987). The Court in this case, however, fails to recognize this principle and make......
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1113 cases
  • Resnover v. Pearson, Civ. No. S88-128.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Indiana
    • January 14, 1991
    ...ruled that introducing "victim impact statements" at a hearing on the death sentence violates the Eighth Amendment. In Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 107 S.Ct. 2529, 96 L.Ed.2d 440 (1987), reh. denied, 483 U.S. 1056, 108 S.Ct. 31, 97 L.Ed.2d 820 (1987), a state statute required the jury t......
  • State v. Ellison, No. CR-04-0073-AP.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Arizona
    • August 9, 2006
    ...death represents a unique loss to society and in particular to his family.'" 501 U.S. at 825, 111 S.Ct. 2597 (quoting Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 517, 107 S.Ct. 2529, 96 L.Ed.2d 440 (1987) (White, J., ¶ 113 Ellison misapprehends the holding in Payne. The language he relies on is the Co......
  • Fautenberry v. Mitchell, No. 05-3568.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • January 25, 2008
    ...who sentenced Fautenberry "contemplated or relied upon the victim-impact evidence which was available to them." Id. In Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 509, 107 S.Ct. 2529, 96 L.Ed.2d 440 (1987), the Supreme Court held that the introduction of victim-impact evidence "at the sentencing phase......
  • Williams v. Chrans, No. 87 C 02084.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Northern District of Illinois)
    • July 5, 1990
    ...hearing, the court allowed certain testimony that Williams characterizes as inadmissible victim impact evidence under Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 107 S.Ct. 2529, 96 L.Ed.2d 440 (1987). A probation officer recited the following portion of a presentence investigation Personal injury was ......
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5 books & journal articles
  • Institutionalizing the Culture of Control
    • United States
    • International Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 24-4, December 2014
    • December 1, 2014
    ...299 (1990)Bobby v. Bies, 556 U.S. 825 (2009)Bobby v. Mitts, 563 U.S. ___ (2011)Bobby v. Van Hook, 558 U.S. ___ (2009)Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496 (1987)Boyde v. California, 494 U.S. 370 (1990)Bracy v. Gramley, 520 U.S. 899 (1997)Bradshaw v. Richey, 546 U.S 74 (2005)Bradshaw v. Stumpf, 54......
  • Justice Antonin Scalia, Constitutional Discourse, and the Legalistic State
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    • Political Research Quarterly Nbr. 44-4, December 1991
    • December 1, 1991
    ...Meese, 793 F.2d 1303 (D.C. Cir. 1986).Board of Trustees of State University of New York v. Fox, 109 S.Ct. 3028 (1989).Booth v. Maryland, 107 S.Ct. 2529 (1987).Bowen v. Georgetown University Hospital, 109 S.Ct. 468 (1988).Brock v. Cathedral Cry Shale Oil Co., 796 F.2d 533 (D.C. Cir. 1986).Bu......
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    • United States
    • Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 34-4, December 2009
    • December 1, 2009
    ...using large, represen-tative samples. Until then, we are unable to discern how many songs is too many.Cases CitedBooth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496 (1987).Younglove, Nelligan and Reisner / Victim Character Evidence in Death Penalty Cases Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976).Kelly v. Californi......
  • The Impact of Angry Versus Sad Victim Impact Statements on Mock Jurors’ Sentencing Decisions in a Capital Trial
    • United States
    • Criminal Justice and Behavior Nbr. 44-6, June 2017
    • June 1, 2017
    ...differential impact of anger and sadness. European Journal of Social Psychology, 24, 45-62. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2420240104 Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496 (1987).Boppre, B., & Miller, M. (2015). How victim and execution impact statements affect mock jurors’ perceptions, emotions, and verdicts.......
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