In Bosse v. Oklahoma, decided on October 11, 2016, the United State Supreme Court held per Booth v. Maryland (1987), “the Eighth Amendment prohibits a capital sentencing jury from considering victim impact evidence that does not relate directly to the circumstances of the crime. In Payne v. Tennessee (1991), the Court held that Booth was wrong to conclude that the Eighth Amendment required a ban with respect to a particular type of victim impact testimony, but stated that admission of a victim’s family members’ characterizations and opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence violates the Eighth Amendment.” No such evidence was actually presented in Payne.
An Oklahoma jury convicted Bosse of three counts of first-degree murder for the 2010 killing of Griffin and her children. Over Bosse’s objection, the State asked three of the victims’ relatives to recommend a sentence to the jury. All three recommended death, and the jury agreed. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the sentence, concluding that Payne implicitly overruled that portion of Booth regarding characterizations of the defendant and opinions of the sentence. The Supreme Court vacated. Payne specifically acknowledged its holding did not affect Booth’s prohibition on opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate punishment. That should have ended the Court below’s inquiry into whether the Eighth Amendment bars such testimony; it was wrong to go further and conclude that Payne implicitly overruled Booth in its entirety. Supreme Court decisions remain binding precedent until that Court reconsiders them, regardless of whether subsequent cases raise doubts about their continuing vitality.”
This is a crucial point in formulating a strategy at trial and on appeal since it could be many years before the United States overturns a prior decision, even though subsequent cases indicate that the Court would probably do so. Thus, state courts remain bound by Booth’s prohibition on characterizations and opinions from a victim’s family members about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence. The court declined to consider the state’s arguments that error did not affect the sentencing determination, and that the defendant’s rights were adequately protected by mandatory sentencing review in capital cases under Oklahoma law.