US SC Restricts Scope Of ‘Victim Impact’ Evidence In Death Penalty

US SC Restricts Scope Of ‘Victim Impact’ Evidence In Death Penalty

Vacating the judgment of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals which had affirmed the death sentence of a convict in a triple murder case, the Supreme Court of the United States has reiterated that it has not overruled a decision that bars victims’ family members from recommending a death sentence.

It said a capital sentencing jury considering victim impact evidence that does not relate directly to the circumstances of the crime violates the Eighth Amendment.

In the instant case, a jury convicted petitioner Shaun Michael Bosse of three counts of first-degree murder for the 2010 killing of Katrina Griffin and her two children. The State of Oklahoma sought death penalty.

Over Bosse’s objection, the state asked three of the victims’ relatives to recommend a sentence to the jury. All three recommended death, and the jury agreed.

Bosse appealed, arguing that this testimony about the appropriate sentence violated the Eighth Amendment under Booth. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his sentence, concluding that there was “no error”.

While considering the Petition for Writ of Certiorari, the Supreme Court observed that the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals remains bound by Booth’s prohibition on characterisations and opinions from a victim’s family members about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence unless this court reconsiders that ban.

In Booth v. Maryland, the Supreme Court had held that “the Eighth Amendment prohibits a capital sentencing jury from considering victim impact evidence” that does not “relate directly to the circumstances of the crime”.

But in Payne v. Tennessee, it was held that a victim impact statement in the form of testimony was allowed during the sentencing phase of a trial. In this aspect, the court observed: “The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has recognised that Payne “specifically acknowledged its holding did not affect” Booth’s prohibition on opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate punishment. That should have ended its inquiry into whether the Eighth Amendment bars such testimony; the court was wrong to go further and conclude that Payne implicitly overruled Booth in its entirety.

Read the opinion here.



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