Dawson v. Delaware, 503 U.S. 159 (1992)

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certiorari to the supreme court of delaware

No. 90-6704. Argued November 12, 1991—Decided March 9, 1992

A Delaware jury convicted petitioner Dawson of first-degree murder and other crimes. At the penalty hearing, the prosecution, inter alia, read a stipulation—"[t]he Aryan Brotherhood refers to a white racist prison gang that began . . . in California in response to other gangs of racial minorities. Separate gangs calling themselves the Aryan Brotherhood now exist in many state prisons including Delaware"—despite Dawson's assertion that the admission of the stipulated facts violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and introduced evidence that he had the words "Aryan Brotherhood" tattooed on his hand. The jury found that the aggravating circumstances—that the murder was committed by an escaped prisoner, during the commission of a burglary, and for pecuniary gain—outweighed Dawson's mitigating evidence—that he had shown kindness to family members and had earned good time credits in prison—and made a binding recommendation to the court that he be sentenced to death. The State Supreme Court affirmed.

Held: 1. Dawson's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated by the admission of the Aryan Brotherhood evidence in this case, because the evidence had no relevance to the issues being decided in the proceeding. The Constitution does not erect a per se barrier to the admission of evidence concerning one's beliefs and associations at sentencing simply because those beliefs and associations are protected by the First Amendment. See, e. g., Barclay v. Florida, 463 U. S. 939. However, the narrowness of the stipulation admitted here left the evidence totally without relevance to the sentencing proceeding. The stipulation says nothing about the beliefs of the Delaware prison's chapter of the Aryan Brotherhood. Any racist beliefs the group might hold were not tied in any way to the murder, because Dawson's victim was white, as is Dawson. The evidence proved only the group's and Dawson's abstract beliefs, not that the group had committed or endorsed any unlawful or violent acts. Thus, it was not relevant to help prove any aggravating circumstance. Cf. Texas v. Johnson, 491 U. S. 397, 414. Nor was the evidence relevant to rebut any mitigating evidence, since, while the State was entitled to introduce "bad" character evidence to rebut Dawson's "good" character evidence, see Payne v. Tennessee, 501


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