Scope of Victim Impact Statements in Capital Cases

The Supreme Court of the United States issued a per curiam decision in Bosse v. Oklahoma on October 11, 2106 regarding the scope of victim impact statements in capital cases. The decision clarifies two previous decisions of the Court.

In Booth v. Maryland (1987), the Court held that the 8th Amendment prohibits a capital sentencing jury from considering victim impact evidence that does not relate directly to the circumstances of the crime. Specifically, the Booth Court held that the admission of a victim's family members' characterizations and opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence violates the 8th Amendment.

Four years later, in Payne v. Tennessee (1991) , the Court held that Booth was wrong and concluded that victim impact evidence is permitted as to the personal characteristics of the victim and the emotional impact of the crimes on the victim's family. Importantly, Payne was expressly limited to this particular type of victim impact testimony.

In Bosse, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals attempted to extend Payne's holding to allow the prosecution to introduce victim impact evidence relating to the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence. The Supreme Court reversed, noting that Booth's prohibition of such evidence was not expressed overruled in Payne.

From the Court's decision, it is clear that victim impact statements containing characterizations and opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence violate the 8th Amendment. However, a victim impact statement about the personal characteristics of the victim and the emotional impact of the crimes on the victim's family is permitted.