Skipper v. South Carolina

RESPONDENT: South Carolina
LOCATION: Rhode Island District Court

DOCKET NO.: 84-6859
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: South Carolina Supreme Court

CITATION: 476 US 1 (1986)
ARGUED: Feb 24, 1986
DECIDED: Apr 29, 1986

David I. Bruck - on behalf of the petitioner, appointed by this Court
Harold M. Coombs, Jr. - on behalf of the respondent

Facts of the case


Media for Skipper v. South Carolina

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 24, 1986 in Skipper v. South Carolina

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in Skipper against South Carolina.

Mr. Bruck, I think you may proceed when you are ready.

David I. Bruck:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, in this case the petitioner, Ronald Skipper, was convicted of murder and rape in the South Carolina Supreme Court, and was sentenced to death.

At his sentencing hearing before the trial jury, one of the mitigating factors which he attempted to submit for the jury's consideration was evidence of his past good conduct and successful adaptation to a jail environment during the seven-and-a-half months between the time of his arrest and the time of his trial.

He attempted to prove this obviously for the purpose of persuading the jury whose sole decision of the sentencing phase was whether to send him to prison for life or whether to sentence him to death, that if he were sentenced to life instead of death, he could be expected to continue to conduct himself in a non-violent manner, and that he would adapt successfully and non-violently to the regime of imprisonment.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Bruck, does the record disclose by an offer of proof or otherwise exactly what it is that the evidence of the two corrections officers, if that is what we are dealing with, would have consisted of?

David I. Bruck:

In terms of an offer of their testimony on the witness stand in camera, no, it does not.

This proffer, the proffer is contained primarily at Page 11 of the Joint Appendix, and it is counsel standing in place and representing to the trial judge what the witnesses would say.

We have under subpoena, Your Honor, two jailers to testify that the defendant has made a good adjustment, and at that point the court says that that issue is not relevant.

The actual testimony is not in the record.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

For our purposes, we should consider what the evidence would have been to have consisted only of past conduct while incarcerated, is that correct, without an element of prediction of future conduct?

David I. Bruck:

Yes, that is what was proffered.

It is that he made a good adjustment.

It was obviously being offered for the purpose of permitting the sentencing authority to draw the conclusion about his future conduct.

The South Carolina Supreme Court seemed to feel that both were offered.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Now, under present South Carolina law, do I understand correctly that the state would now permit such evidence to be introduced?

David I. Bruck:

Yes, Your Honor, but for a very limited purpose.

South Carolina has again and again and again adhered to the position first expressed in Koon I, which was the basis of the ruling here that the issue of the future good conduct of a defendant in prison is irrelevant.

However, in Koon II, a case decided nearly a year after this trial, and thus of no relevance to what happened here, the Court said that past good conduct in jail is admissible but only as general evidence of the good character of the defendant.

It is not admissible on the issue of good conduct in jail, which the Court has continued over and over again to say is inadmissible, and proof of that, our position is that the South Carolina Supreme Court has repeatedly, beginning with Koon I and as recently as State against Chaffee, cited in my brief, upheld the exclusion of expert psychiatric testimony which was focusing solely on whether or not based on a psychiatric evaluation of this defendant his likely future conduct in prison would be good.

That conduct is always excluded, and it is always excluded under South Carolina law on grounds of relevancy, that is, the relevancy of the issue.

There has never been a case in which a psychiatrist offering his testimony was held to have offered him competent testimony, unreliable testimony.

South Carolina focuses solely on the issue of whether or not the question of his future conduct itself is relevant, and South Carolina says that it is not, and that is the issue before the Court.

Byron R. White:

But, of course, we did limit certiorari here, didn't we?

David I. Bruck:


Byron R. White:

To evidence of future adaptability?

David I. Bruck:

Evidence tending to prove future adaptability.

Byron R. White:


David I. Bruck:

Obviously, the evidence was not offered idly.

It was not offered to satisfy the jury's curiosity, but rather to allow the jury to make its own conclusions.