Bigotry barred as evidence in sentencing for non-racial murders

March 10, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court barred prosecutors yesterday from using a convicted murderer's racist views or membership in a racist prison gang as reasons to justify a death sentence.

Unless there is some link between the murderer's views or gang membership and the crime or the murderer's dangerous character, it is unconstitutional to tell the jury about them to induce jurors to impose capital punishment, the court decided by an 8-1 vote in a Delaware case.

The court's new member, Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented alone.

Echoing views of the Justice Department, Mr. Thomas argued that the whole idea behind prison gangs is to promote "criminal or deviant" conduct, and thus mere membership in such a gang should be taken into account by the jury as evidence of "bad character" that could justify execution.

The main opinion was written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, one of the court's leading conservatives, and was joined by all of the other conservative justices -- except Mr. Thomas -- as well as by the court's two liberal justices.

Mr. Rehnquist wrote that Delaware prosecutors had sought to use the "abstract beliefs" of murderer David F. Dawson as a member of a white supremacy gang, the Aryan Brotherhood, in asking a jury to sentence him to death in the killing of a white woman.

That violated Dawson's First Amendment rights to hold such views, or belong to a group with those views, the chief justice declared.

Justice Thomas' dissent complained that the Rehnquist opinion took a "troubling and unnecessary" step to protect prison gang members under the First Amendment.

"The concept of a prison gang is not so mysterious that it requires an encyclopedic definition," the dissenting justice wrote.

"A jury knows the nature of a prison gang."

The court's ruling returned Dawson's case to Delaware's SupremeCourt without overturning his death sentence for a murder he committed in 1986 after escaping from state prison.

The state Supreme Court, the chief justice said, is free to consider keeping the death sentence on the theory that the jury would have imposed that sentence anyway, even if it had not been told that Dawson had membership in the Aryan Brotherhood and shared its racist views.

The Rehnquist opinion stressed that the court was not ruling that prosecutors could never put before juries in capital sentence cases evidence about a prisoner's beliefs or memberships, just because those are protected under the First Amendment.

Even in Dawson's case, the court said, prosecutors could have told the jury -- if they had had evidence to prove it -- that the Aryan Brotherhood is "a white racist prison gang that is %o associated with drugs and violent escape attempts at prisons, and that advocates the murder of fellow inmates."

But prosecutors did not offer any such evidence against Dawson, the chief justice noted.

All they did was offer the fact of Dawson's membership in a group that had racist beliefs and that "was not tied in any way to the murder of Dawson's victim."

Dawson, Mr. Rehnquist noted, is white, and so was the woman he killed.

"Elements of racial hatred were not involved in the case," he added.

He also said that prosecutors had not offered any proof that the prison gang in Delaware committed any illegal or violent acts or endorsed them.

Evidence disallowed

David F. Dawson, one of four prison inmates who escaped from the Delaware state prison on Dec. 1, 1986, went on a crime spree, breaking into homes in the rural area near Kenton. He broke into the home of Marie Kisner in Clayton, just as she was getting ready to go to work.

Mrs. Kisner was strangled to death and stabbed repeatedly. Later, Dawson was convicted of her murder and was sentenced to death.

Before the jury sentenced him, prosecutors said they were going to tell the jurors that Dawson was a member of a white supremacist prison gang, the Aryan Brotherhood. Rather than have full evidence come out about his ties to that group, Dawson's lawyers agreed to let the jury be told simply that the Aryan Brotherhood was a prison gang that had a group in Delaware.

That information, plus testimony about Dawson's tattoos relating his Aryan Brotherhood membership, were put before the jury. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that that evidence should not have been allowed.

Other actions

DECISIONS

Workers' benefits. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that states may force employers to refund, with interest, injured workers' compensation claims that had been withheld as an offset to their pension rights. The decision means that two major automakers, General Motors and Ford, will have to pay $25 million to retired workers who had been injured on the job and whose right to compensation that had been withheld was restored retroactively by the legislature. General Motors vs. Romein (No. 90-1930).

CASES TO BE HEARD

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