South Carolina v. Gathers

PETITIONER: South Carolina
RESPONDENT: Gathers
LOCATION: Wards Cove Packing Co.

DOCKET NO.: 88-305
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: South Carolina Supreme Court

CITATION: 490 US 805 (1989)
ARGUED: Mar 28, 1989
DECIDED: Jun 12, 1989

ADVOCATES:
Donald J. Zelenka - for petitioner
Joseph L. Savitz, III - for respondent
William Isaac Diggs - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

Question

Media for South Carolina v. Gathers

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 28, 1989 in South Carolina v. Gathers

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 88-305, South Carolina v. Demetrius Gathers.

Mr. Zelenka, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

This case presents an opportunity for the Court to revisit the role of the victim in capital sentencing proceedings and prevent further eroding of that role in the criminal justice equation of punishment.

Particularly this case presents the narrow issue of whether the prosecutor's argument during the sentencing phase violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution when it focuses on the characteristics of the victim, as well as the defendant, rather than only the defendant when the characteristics are directly drawn from the evidence admitted at the trial and obvious to the jury.

In September 1986, Richard Haynes, a 32 year old black male, was brutally beaten, his possessions ransacked.

He was sexually assaulted and murdered by Demetrius Gathers and his accomplices.

The beatings occurred at a city park when Hayres had gone to review religious materials that he had set out on the park bench when he was accosted for the first time in reckless disregard of his rights to free expression in practicing his religion.

In the sentencing phase, the prosecutor commented upon evidence that was admitted to the trial obvious to the jury from the guilt phase the victim was a religious person, that he was a registered voter, and he read from a prayer card in evidence referred to as the Game Guy's Prayer about a person wanting a fair chance in life and giving others that same fair chance.

The Supreme Court of South Carolina, relying on this Court's decision in Booth, asserted that these comments on the personal characteristics of the defendant were not necessary for an understanding of the crime, and therefore violated the Eighth Amendment.

We submit that the Eighth Amendment was not violated by these prosecutor's comments and that the Eighth Amendment allows a jury in any capital punishment situation to have an understanding as to who the victim was and what he was doing at the time he was brutally murdered.

The Eighth Amendment, we submit, does not preclude comments that are directly related.

Yes, sir?

Antonin Scalia:

If so, why can't you put in evidence to that effect?

We submit that to that extent Booth is wrong, that evidence--

Antonin Scalia:

Yes, but assuming... assuming Booth is right, if you can't get in evidence, why can you make comments?

--You certainly should be able--

Antonin Scalia:

I mean, I can understand... I can understand half your argument if you just say that Booth is wrong, but... but you're also trying to make the argument that even if Booth is right, you should win in this case.

Right?

--That's correct.

The evidence--

Antonin Scalia:

Well, do you know any other area where we say the... no evidence of that is admissible, and it, indeed, is unconstitutional to admit evidence of that during the trial.

However, the prosecutor may comment upon that during... during his summation.

Do you know of any other area where... where we make that kind of a distinction?

--I don't think in any area such as this the... excuse me... the elements of what that particular victim were related directly here to the circumstances of the crime that were admissible for that purpose as the res justified--

Antonin Scalia:

Well, that's fine, and he could make the argument if it had to do with the circumstance.

But he wasn't making that argument.

He was calling attention to the characteristics of the victim in an effort to get the jury to impose a higher penalty.

--He was referring--

Antonin Scalia:

And if we've said that you can't take into account the characteristics of the victim, then... then that's just wrong, isn't it?