LOCATION: Mississippi Governor's Office
DOCKET NO.: 90-6704
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: Delaware Supreme Court
CITATION: 503 US 159 (1992)
ARGUED: Nov 12, 1991
DECIDED: Mar 09, 1992
Bernard J. O'Donnell - on behalf of the Petitioner
Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr. - on behalf of the Respondent
Facts of the case
Media for Dawson v. DelawareAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 12, 1991 in Dawson v. Delaware
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 09, 1992 in Dawson v. Delaware
William H. Rehnquist:
I have the dispositions of the Court to announce in two cases.
The first one is Dawson against Delaware.
After escaping with three other inmates from the Delaware Correctional Center, the petitioner here, David Dawson, murdered Mrs. Madeline Kisner at her home.
Police officers apprehended him early the next morning while performing a house-to-house search.
A jury convicted him of first degree murder and other related crimes.
The Trial Court then conducted a penalty hearing before the jury to determine whether Dawson should be sentenced to death for the murder.
At the penalty hearing, the prosecution introduced evidence that Dawson had tattooed the words Aryan Brotherhood on his hand and also read to the jury the following stipulation.
The Aryan Brotherhood refers to a white racist prison gang that began in the 1960s in California in response to other gangs of racial minorities.
Separate gangs calling themselves the Aryan Brotherhood now exists in many state prisons including Delaware.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the jury found that the aggravating evidence against Dawson outweighed the mitigating evidence and made a binding recommendation that Dawson be sentenced to death, and the Supreme Court of Delaware affirmed the conviction and the death sentence.
In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we hold that the admission of the evidence regarding Dawson's membership in the Aryan Brotherhood violated his rights under the First Amendment.
Although the Constitution does not erect any automatic barrier to the admission at sentencing of evidence concerning one's beliefs.
We have concluded that the narrowness of the stipulation used in this case left the Aryan Brotherhood evidence totally without relevance to Dawson's sentencing proceeding.
As a result of its reliance on the narrow stipulation, the prosecution failed to prove anything more than Dawson's abstract racist beliefs.
We leave for the Supreme Court of Delaware the question of whether the First Amendment violation in this case was harmless error.
Justice Blackmun has filed a concurring opinion and Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion.