SCOTUS Says Death Sentence Spoiled by Victim Testimony

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By Lance J. Rogers

Oct. 11 — A death row inmate in Oklahoma must be resentenced because the jury heard victim-impact testimony from three of the murder victims' relatives recommending that the killer be sentenced to death, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Oct. 11 in a per curiam opinion ( Bosse v. Oklahoma , 2016 BL 338178, U.S., No. 15-9173, 10/11/16 ).

The decision clarifies that a 1991 U.S. Supreme Court ruling lifting the ban on certain types of victim-impact evidence in capital cases didn’t “implicitly” open the door so wide that a victim’s family members can tell the jury why they think the defendant should be put to death.

Limits on Victim-Impact Testimony

In Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991), the court overruled Booth v. Maryland,482 U.S. 496 (1987) and South Carolina v. Gathers,490 U.S. 805 (1989), to the extent those cases prohibited the state from presenting testimony by a victim’s family member relating to the victim and the impact of the victim’s death on the victim’s family.

The Payne court, however, expressly reserved judgment on the continuing vitality of Booth‘s prohibition on the admission of a family member’s characterizations and opinions about the crime, the defendant and the appropriate sentence, the justices said.

Therefore, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals erred when it misinterpreted the breadth of the Payne decision and allowed three of the victims' relatives to recommend that Shaun Michael Bosse be put to death for murdering his girlfriend and her two children, the justices said.

“Our decisions remain binding precedent until we see fit to reconsider them, regardless of whether subsequent cases have raised doubts about their continuing vitality,” the court said, quoting Hohn v. United States, 524 U.S. 236 (1998).

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. concurred separately, emphasizing that the decision says nothing about whether Booth was correctly decided in the first place.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lance J. Rogers in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at

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