Dawson v. Delaware

Decision Date09 March 1992
Docket NumberNo. 90-6704,90-6704
Citation112 S.Ct. 1093,117 L.Ed.2d 309,503 U.S. 159
PartiesDavid DAWSON, Petitioner, v. DELAWARE
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

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, 103 S.Ct. 3418, 77 L.Ed.2d 1134. 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, 109 S.Ct. 2533, 2544, 105 L.Ed.2d 342. 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 U.S. ----, ----, 111 S.Ct. 2597, ----, 115 L.Ed.2d 720, 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. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

Bernard J. O'Donnell, Wilmington, Del., for petitioner.

Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr., Wilmington, Del., for respondent.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE 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 morning, Dawson burglarized a house near Kenton, Delaware, stealing a motorcycle jacket, several pocket watches, and containers of loose change. He then proceeded to the home of Richard and Madeline Kisner, located about half a mile from the burglary site. Mrs. Kisner was alone in the house, preparing to leave for work. Dawson brutally murdered Mrs. Kisner, stole the Kisners' car and some money, and fled further south.

He reappeared later that evening at the Zoo Bar in Milford, Delaware, wearing a motorcycle jacket that was too big for him. While at the bar, Dawson introduced himself to Patty Dennis, and told her that his name was "Abaddon," which he said meant "one of Satan's disciples." App. 80-81. Dawson was subsequently asked to leave the bar. Later that evening, a Delaware state police officer responded to a call to investigate a one-car accident. The car involved in the accident had been stolen from a location near the Zoo Bar and had been driven into a ditch, but the driver had left the scene. The police began a house-to-house search for Dawson, and found him at 5:25 the next morning, on the floor of a Cadillac parked about three-tenths of a mile from the accident site.

A jury convicted Dawson of first-degree murder, possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a felony, and various other crimes. The trial court then conducted a penalty hearing before the jury to determine whether Dawson should be sentenced to death for the first-degree murder conviction. See Del.Code Ann., Tit. 11, § 4209 (1987). The prosecution gave notice that it intended to introduce (1) expert testimony regarding the origin and nature of the Aryan Brotherhood, as well as the fact that Dawson had the words "Aryan Brotherhood" tattooed on the back of his right hand, (2) testimony that Dawson referred to himself as "Abaddon" and had the name "Abaddon" tattooed in red letters across his stomach, and (3) photographs of multiple swastika tattoos on Dawson's back and a picture of a swastika he had painted on the wall of his prison cell. Dawson argued that this evidence was inflammatory and irrelevant, and that its admission would violate his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Before the penalty phase began, the parties agreed to a stipulation regarding the Aryan Brotherhood evidence. The stipulation provided that

"[t]he Aryan Brotherhood refers to a white racist prison gang that began in the 1960's 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." App. 132.

In return for Dawson's agreement to the stipulation, the prosecution agreed not to call any expert witnesses to testify about the Aryan Brotherhood. Although Dawson agreed to the stipulation in order to avoid presentation of this expert testimony, it is apparent from the record and from the opinion of the Supreme Court of Delaware that he continued to assert that the admission of the stipulated facts into evidence violated the Constitution. 581 A.2d 1078 (1990). At the penalty hearing, the prosecution read the stipulation to the jury and introduced evidence that Dawson had tattooed the words "Aryan Brotherhood" on his hand. The trial judge permitted the prosecution to present the evidence related to the name "Abaddon" as well, but excluded all of the swastika evidence. In addition, the prosecution submitted proof of Dawson's lengthy criminal record. Dawson, in turn, presented mitigating evidence based on the testimony of two family members and on the fact that he had earned good time credits in prison for enrolling in various drug and alcohol programs. The jury found three statutory aggravating circumstances, each making Dawson eligible for the death penalty under Delaware law; it determined (1) that the murder was committed by an escaped prisoner, (2) that the murder was committed during the commission of a burglary, and (3) that the murder was committed for pecuniary gain. See id., at 1102, and n. 27. The jury further concluded that the aggravating evidence outweighed the mitigating evidence, and recommended that Dawson be sentenced to death. The trial court, bound by that recommendation, imposed the death penalty.

The Supreme Court of Delaware affirmed the convictions and the death sentence. The court rejected Dawson's claim that the evidence concerning the Aryan Brotherhood and his use of the name "Abaddon" should have been excluded from the penalty hearing. It observed that having found at least one statutory aggravating factor, the jury was "required to make an individualized determination of whether Dawson should be executed or incarcerated for life, based upon Dawson's character, his record and the circumstances of the crime," and that it was desirable for the jury to have as much information before it as possible when making that decision. Id., at 1102-1103 (emphasis in original). The court acknowledged that the Constitution would prohibit the consideration of certain irrelevant factors during the sentencing process, but stated that " '[p]unishing a person for expressing his views or for associating with certain people is substantially different from allowing . . . evidence of [the defendant's] character [to be considered] where that character is a relevant inquiry.' " Id., at 1103. Because the evidence relating to the Aryan Brotherhood and the name "Abaddon" properly focused the jury's attention on Dawson's character, and did not appeal to the jury's prejudices concerning race, religion or political affiliation, the court upheld its introduction during the penalty phase. We granted certiorari, 499 U.S. ----, 111 S.Ct. 1412, 113 L.Ed.2d 465 (1991), to consider whether the admission of this evidence was constitutional error. We hold that its admission in this case was error, and so reverse.

We have held that the First Amendment protects an individual's right to join groups and associate with others holding similar beliefs. See ...

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