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Court rules out consideration of victim's family in capital cases

The United States Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 ruling Monday, held that juries pondering the death penalty could not weigh the impact of the murder on the family of the victim. This decision in a Maryland case also has broad significance for 30 other states that authorize using victim-impact statements at the sentencing stage of criminal cases.

In recent years so-called victims-rights groups have often successfully lobbied legislatures to pass laws permitting the plight of loved ones to be considered when determining the legal fate of convicted murderers and rapists.

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Maryland has been one of the few states that actually require such statements in cases where capital punishment could be imposed. Counsel for the state had argued in this litigation that examination of such impact was relevant because the effect on victims is a ``circumstance of the crime'' and should be considered in determining punishment.

Lawyers for convicted murderer John Booth, on the other hand, insisted that victim-impact statements are calculated to inflame the jury and therefore are not appropriate for capital sentencing.

Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell, writing for the court, agreed with that view, holding that allowing a jury to hear about the emotional distress on a victim's family could inflame jurors and thus deny a defendant a fair sentencing.

Introducing a victims-impact statement as evidence ``creates a constitutionally unacceptable risk that the jury may impose the death penalty in an arbitrary and capricious manner,'' Justice Powell said.

``One can understand the grief and anger of the family caused by the brutal murders in this case [the defendant was convicted of killing an elderly couple],'' the justice added. ``But the formal presentation of this information by the state can 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.''

Joining the majority with Powell were Associate Justices Harry A. Blackmun, William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and John Paul Stevens. Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissented along with Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Byron R. White.

Justice White wrote: ``There is nothing aberrant in a juror's inclination to hold a murderer accountable ... for the full extent of the harm he caused.''

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This ruling seems to symbolize the court's inability to reach a consensus in cases involving the death penalty. Up to now, the justices have refused to outlaw capital punishment. And they have disagreed as to what safeguards should be applied when meting out such a verdict.

Last month the court, in another 5-to-4 ruling, said that the death penalty was lawful even if it was administered in a racially biased manner. Since that time, however, several states have moved toward setting up guidelines to prevent, or minimize, such discrimination.

And Monday the court agreed to take an Oklahoma case to determine whether judges violate defendants' rights when they refuse to disqualify ``for cause'' jurors who say that they will automatically vote for the death penalty upon conviction.

In striking down the victim-impact statement as evidence, Justice Powell said that the impact of a crime on the victim's family could be entirely unrelated to the guilt of the defendant. It could subject someone to the death penalty, he explained, merely because family members were willing and able to articulate their anguish. The case is John Booth v. State of Maryland.

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