482 U. S. 496
June 15, 1987
In 1983, John Booth broke into the home of Irvin and Rose Bronstein, and he murdered them in gory fashion. When it came time for sentencing, the prosecution introduced statements from the children and grandchildren of the Bronsteins. Even months and years later, the family remained broken, scarred, and frightened by the senseless and barbaric evil. The murder had happened days before one granddaughter’s wedding. After a marriage filled with grieving rather than joy, the newlyweds left the reception for the funeral rather than their honeymoon. After Booth was given the death penalty, he claimed that introducing this victim impact evidence made the sentencing unfair under the Eighth Amendment.
Justice Powell wrote for a bare 5-4 majority, which agreed that victim impact statements rendered the death sentence invalid. He argued that these statements shift the focus of the trial from the defendant to the victim, and that the happenstance of a victim having a large and articulate family was not relevant to the blameworthiness of a murderer. Powell also thought the possibility of cross-examining victims was unsavory, and that victim impact statements had an inflammatory quality that clashed with the deliberative atmosphere a trial ought to have.
White and Scalia filed remarkably restrained dissents, each of which was joined by the other, along with Rehnquist and O’Connor. Both pointed out that criminal law has always allowed for harsher punishments based on consequences that the culprit had no control over, like whether an attempted murder succeeds, or whether reckless driving kills a bystander. Both also denounced the double standard of allowing the defendant to offer an avalanche of mitigating evidence unrelated to the instant crime, while letting the victims say nothing. Both saw that the Court was imposing its own value judgments rather than letting the legislatures do so.
White further showed that the decision was not just a value judgment, but the wrong value judgment. “The affront to humanity of a brutal murder such as petitioner committed is not limited to its impact on the victim or victims; a victim’s community is also injured, and in particular the victim’s family suffers shock and grief of a kind difficult even to imagine for those who have not shared a similar loss… There is nothing aberrant in a juror’s inclination to hold a murderer accountable not only for his internal disposition in committing the crime but also for the full extent of the harm he caused… At bottom, the Court’s view seems to be that it is somehow unfair to confront a defendant with an account of the loss his deliberate act has caused the victim’s family and society.”
It is darkly amusing to see liberals lecturing about the unfairness of a crime’s impact determining its perpetrator’s fate. In the realm of torts, these same liberals are more than happy to stick innocent men and women who did absolutely nothing wrong with ruinous multi-billion dollar punishments (see ‘strict liability’ and ‘res ipsa loquitur’). This case also shows how screwed up the remedies are for Constitutional violations. Not all violations can be said to genuinely merit the overturning of a sentence as a remedy – and this case is a paradigmatic example. Booth’s crime was depravity incarnate, and no subsequent procedural blip can possibly make his execution “cruel and unusual.”
The five Justices in the majority flatly ignored the Bible’s command against showing partiality to the wicked. They would silence a community and its victims, and denigrate the generational effects of sin, and do so in the name of ‘justice.’ The majority’s evident belief that Booth himself was somehow victimized by his own victim’s anguish, grief, and brokenness debases and mutilates the concept of justice beyond recognition. The prophets of the Old Testament wrote beautifully poetic laments of sin’s corrosive and destructive effects on the human community. Doubtless, Powell would have all this scrubbed from the scripture, and have it replaced by a parade of advocacy showing how ‘misunderstood’ and ‘good at heart’ Assyria and Babylon were, despite their respective ‘mistakes’ of brutally obliterating Israel and Judah.
Booth died of natural causes in prison on April 27, 2014, more than three decades after his barbaric murders. His death sentence was reinstated and overturned several more times after this one decision, always on specious grounds that caustically mocked the concept of justice. Until the day of his death, he was unrepentant, and felt that he was the greater victim. God is his judge now.