South Carolina v. Gathers


No. 88-305 Argued: March 28, 1989 --- Decided: June 12, 1989
JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent Demetrius Gathers was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for the killing of Richard Haynes. The evidence at trial showed that Gathers and three companions encountered Haynes, a stranger to them, at a park [p807] bench one evening. When Haynes rebuffed Gathers' attempt to initiate a conversation, Gathers and his friends assaulted Haynes, beating and kicking him severely and smashing a bottle over his head. Before leaving the scene, Gathers beat Haynes with an umbrella, which he then inserted into the victim's anus. Some time later, Gathers apparently returned to the scene and stabbed Haynes with a knife.

Richard Haynes was about 31 years old, and unemployed. For two years prior to his death, he had been experiencing "some mental problems" and had been "in and out of [a] mental hospital" three times. App. 4. Although without formal religious training, Haynes considered himself a preacher, and referred to himself as "Reverend Minister"; his mother testified that he would he would "tal[k] to people all the time about the Lord." Id. at 5-6. He generally carried with him several bags containing articles of religious significance, including two Bibles, rosary beads, plastic statues, olive oil, and religious tracts. Among these items, on the evening of his murder, was a tract entitled "The Game Guy's Prayer." Relying on football and boxing metaphors, it extolled the virtues of the good sport. After Haynes was beaten, his assailants went through his belongings, looking (apparently in vain) for something worth stealing. In rummaging through his personal effects, they scattered on the ground the contents of his wallet and bags, including the just-mentioned tract.

Gathers was tried in the Court of General Sessions for Charleston County, South Carolina. During the guilt phase, the articles found at the scene of the crime were admitted into evidence without objection. [*] The jury found Gathers [p808] guilty of murder and first-degree criminal sexual conduct. All of the testimony and exhibits from the guilt phase were readmitted into evidence at the sentencing phase. The State presented no other evidence at the sentencing phase, but the prosecutor's closing argument included the following remarks, which are the basis for the present controversy:

We know from the proof that Reverend Minister Haynes was a religious person. He had his religious items out there. This defendant strewn [sic] them across the bike path, thinking nothing of that.

Among the many cards that Reverend Haynes had among his belongings was this card. It's in evidence. Think about it when you go back there. He had this [sic] religious items, his beads. He had a plastic angel. Of course, he is now with the angels now, but this defendant Demetrius Gathers could care little about the fact that he is a religious person. Cared little of the pain and agony he inflicted upon a person who is trying to enjoy one of our public parks.

But look at Reverend Minister Haynes' prayer. It's called the Game Guy's Prayer.

Dear God, help me to be a sport in this little game of life. I don't ask for any easy place in this lineup. Play me anywhere you need me. I only ask you for the stuff to give you one hundred percent of what I have got. If all the hard drives seem to come my way, I thank you for the compliment. Help me to remember that you won't ever let anything come my way that you and I together can't handle. And help me to take the bad break as part of the game. Help me [p809] to understand that the game is full of knots and knocks and trouble, and make me thankful for them. Help me to be brave, so that the harder they come, the better I like it. And, oh God, help me to always play on the square. No matter what the other players do, help me to come clean. Help me to study the book, so that I'll know the rules, to study and think a lot about the greatest player that ever lived and other players that are portrayed in the book. If they ever found out the best part of the game was helping other guys who are out of luck, help me to find it out, too. Help me to be regular, and also an inspiration with the other players. Finally, oh God, if fate seems to uppercut me with both hands, and I am laid on the shelf in sickness or old age or something, help me to take that as part of the game, too. Help me not to whimper or squeal that the game was a frameup or that I had a raw deal. When, in the falling dusk, I get the final bell, I ask for no lying, complimentary tombstones. I'd only like to know that you feel that I have been a good guy, a good game guy, a saint in the game of life.

Reverend Minister Haynes, we know, was a very small person. He had his mental problems. Unable to keep a regular job. And he wasn't blessed with fame or fortune. And he took things as they came along. He was prepared to deal with tragedies that he came across in his life.

* * * *

You will find some other exhibits in this case that tell you more about a just verdict. Again this is not easy. No one takes any pleasure from it, but the proof cries out from the grave in this case. Among the personal effects that this defendant could care little about when he went through it is something that we all treasure. Speaks a lot about Reverend Minister Haynes. Very simple, yet very profound. Voting. A voter's registration card. [p810]

Reverend Haynes believed in this community. He took part. And he believed that, in Charleston County, in the United States of America, that in this country, you could go to a public park and sit on a public bench and not be attacked by the likes of Demetrius Gathers.

Id. at 41-43.

Finding that these "extensive comments to the jury regarding the victim's character were unnecessary to an understanding of the circumstances of the crime," the Supreme Court of South Carolina concluded that the prosecutor's remarks "conveyed the suggestion appellant deserved a death sentence because the victim was a religious man and a registered voter." 295 S.C. 476, 484, 369 S.E.2d 140, 144 (1988). Relying on our decision in Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496 (1987), the court reversed Gathers' sentence of death and remanded for a new sentencing proceeding. We granted certiorari, 488 U.S. 888 (1988), and we now affirm.

Our capital cases have consistently recognized that

[f]or purposes of imposing the death penalty, . . . [the defendant's] punishment must be tailored to his personal responsibility and moral guilt.

Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 801 (1982). See also id. at 825 (O'CONNOR, J., dissenting) ("[P]roportionality requires a nexus between the punishment imposed and the defendant's blameworthiness"); Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137, 149 (1987) ("The heart of the retribution rationale is that a criminal sentence must be directly related to the personal culpability of the criminal offender"). Two Terms ago, in Booth v. Maryland, supra, we addressed the question whether use of "victim impact statements" in capital sentencing proceedings violated this principle that a sentence of death must be related to the moral culpability of the defendant. We held that such statements introduced factors that might be "wholly unrelated to the blameworthiness of a particular defendant." 482 U.S. at 504.

The statements placed before the jury in Booth included descriptions of the victims' personal characteristics, statements [p811] concerning the emotional impact of the crime on the victims' family, and the family members' opinions about the crime and the defendant. At issue in the present case is a statement of the first sort -- one concerning personal characteristics of the victim. While in this case it was the prosecutor, rather than the victim's survivors, who characterized the victim's personal qualities, the statement is indistinguishable in any relevant respect from that in Booth. As in Booth,

[a]llowing the jury to rely on [this information] . . . could result in imposing the death sentence because of factors about which the defendant was unaware, and that were irrelevant to the decision to kill.

Id. at 505.

Our opinion in Booth, however, left open the possibility that the kind of information contained in victim impact statements could be admissible if it "relate[d] directly to the circumstances of the crime." Id. at 507, n. 10. South Carolina asserts that such is the case here. Brief for Petitioner 25-41. It contends that the various personal effects which were "maliciously strewn around [the victim's] body during the event" were "relevant to the circumstances of the crime or reveal certain personal characteristics of the defendant." Id. at 28.

We disagree. The fact that Gathers scattered Haynes' personal papers around his body while going through them looking for something to steal was certainly a relevant circumstance of the crime, and thus a proper subject for comment. But the prosecutor's argument in this case went well beyond that fact: he read to the jury at length from the religious tract the victim was carrying, and commented on the personal qualities he inferred from Haynes' possession of the "Game Guy's Prayer" and the voter registration card. The content of these cards, however, cannot possibly have been relevant to the "circumstances of the crime." There is no evidence whatever that the defendant read anything that was printed on either the tract or the voter card. Indeed, it is extremely unlikely that he did so. The testimony at trial [p812] was that Gathers went through Haynes' bags very quickly, "just throwing [his belongings] everywhere, looking through things," App. 27, and that he spent not more than a minute doing so, id. at 28. The crime took place, moreover, at night, along a dark path through a wooded area. Id. at 17; Record 621-622, 926-927. Nor did the assailants have flashlights. Id. at 622-623. Under these circumstances, the content of the various papers the victim happened to be carrying when he was attacked was purely fortuitous, and cannot provide any information relevant to the defendant's moral culpability. Notwithstanding that the papers had been admitted into evidence for another purpose, their content cannot be said to relate directly to the circumstances of the crime.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of South Carolina is therefore


* The objects found scattered around Haynes' body were, for the most part, admitted into evidence during the testimony of Charleston police officer Anthony Hazel. Record 768-790. At no time then, or otherwise during the guilt phase, was there any reference to the content of the papers Haynes had with him. For example, the following was the entire colloquy at the time many of the papers were admitted:

Q. Okay. . . . What else?

A. Point C, we found some personal papers.

Q. Personal papers that appeared to belong to the victim?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. That would be State's Exhibit 19?

A. Yes.

Id. at 782. See also id. at 787.