South Carolina v. Gathers

(Redirected from 490 U.S. 805)
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United States Supreme Court

490 U.S. 805

South Carolina  v.  Gathers

No. 88-305  Argued: March 28, 1989. --- Decided: June 12, 1989

See 492 U.S. 938, 110 S.Ct. 24.


Respondent was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in a South Carolina court. The prosecutor's closing argument at the sentencing phase included his reading to the jury at length from a religious tract the victim was carrying and comments on the personal qualities that the prosecutor inferred from the victim's possession of the religious tract and a voter registration card. Finding that the prosecutor's "extensive comments to the jury regarding the victim's character were unnecessary to an understanding of the circumstances of the crime," the South Carolina Supreme Court concluded that those comments "conveyed the suggestion [respondent] deserved a death sentence because the victim was a religious man and a registered voter," and, in reliance on Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 107 S.Ct. 2529, 96 L.Ed.2d 440, reversed respondent's death sentence a d remanded for a new sentencing proceeding.

Held: "For purposes of imposing the death penalty . . . [the defendant's] punishment must be tailored to his personal responsibility and moral guilt." Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 801, 102 S.Ct. 3368, 3378, 73 L.Ed.2d 1140. Here, the prosecutor's comments concerned the victim's personal characteristics, and "[a]llowing the jury to rely on [this information] . . . could result in imposing the death sentence because of factors about which the defendant was unaware, and that were irrelevant to the decision to kill." Booth v. Maryland, supra, 482 U.S. at 505, 107 S.Ct. at 2534. The content of the religious tract and the voter registration card could not possibly have been relevant to the "circumstances of the crime." Where there was no evidence that respondent read either the tract or the voter card, the content of the papers the victim was carrying was purely fortuitous and could not provide any information relevant to respondent's moral culpability, notwithstanding that the papers had been admitted in evidence for other purposes. Pp. 810-812.

295 S.C. 476, 369 S.E.2d 140 (1988), affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 812. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and KENNEDY, J., joined, post, p. 812. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 823.

Donald J. Zelenka, Columbia, for petitioner.

Joseph L. Savitz, III, Asst. Appellate Defender, William Isaac Diggs, Columbia, for respondent.

Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).