Dawson v. Delaware
Decided on Mar. 9, 1992; 503 US 159


A. Issues Discussed:  Criminal Justice (death penalty), 1st Amendment, 14th Amendment, 8th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented: 

In a capital murder sentencing hearing, does the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the introduction of the fact that the defendant was a member of a well-known racist prison gang, even though that fact is irrelevant to the issues being decided?

A. Background:

After escaping from prison, David Dawson committed a string of crimes which led to his ultimate conviction for first-degree murder (among other crimes). 
At the trial court sentencing hearing the prosecution was allowed to introduce evidence about the origin and nature of the Aryan Brotherhood; the fact that Dawson had a visible "Aryan Brotherhood" tattoo; and testimony that Dawson referred to himself as "Abaddon" and had the name "Abaddon" tattooed on his abdomen - despite the fact that the prosecution had previously agreed not to introduce expert testimony about the Aryan Brotherhood.  That agreement had been reached in order to arrive at a stipulated definition of the Aryan Brotherhood that said:  "The Aryan Brotherhood refers to a white racist prison gang that began in the 1960's 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."  The only evidence that the court excluded pertained to photos of swastika tattoos on Dawson's back and of the painting of a swastika he had made on the wall of his cell.  
Dawson argued that this evidence was inflammatory and irrelevant, and that admitting it in court would violate his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  He presented mitigating evidence about his good character and that he had earned credits in prison for his enrollment in drug and alcohol programs.  
The jury decided that the aggravating evidence outweighed the mitigating evidence, and the trial court imposed the death penalty as bound by the jury's recommendation.  The Supreme Court of Delaware affirmed, rejecting Dawson's claim for exclusion.  The court acknowledged that although the Constitution could prohibit punishing someone based on an expression of viewpoint or association with a group, it was proper to allow character evidence where relevant so long as the evidence did not appeal to juror prejudices about race, religion, or political affiliation.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Bernard J. O'Donnell argued the cause on behalf of the petitioner.
With him on the brief was Brian J. Bartley.

Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr. argued the cause on behalf of respondent.

With him on the brief were Charles M. Oberly III, Attorney General of Delaware, and
Deputy Attorneys General Gary A. Myers and Loren C. Myers.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Michael A. Bamberger, Stuart Altschuler, John A. Powell, Steven R. Shapiro, and Jonathan Lang filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, et al., as amici curiae urging reversal. Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorney General Mueller, Deputy Solicitor General Bryson, and Robert A. Long, Jr., filed a brief for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance.

"The First Amendment protects an individual's right to join groups and associate with others holding similar beliefs... [However, we have also] held that the Government could impeach a defense witness by showing that both the defendant and the witness were members of the Aryan Brotherhood, and that members were sworn to lie on behalf of each other. We held the evidence admissible to show bias, even assuming that membership in the organization was among the associational freedoms protected by the First Amendment... 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.
[I]n this case, the receipt into evidence of the stipulation regarding his membership in the Aryan Brotherhood was constitutional error. Before the penalty hearing, the prosecution claimed that its expert witness would show that the Aryan Brotherhood is a white racist prison gang that is associated with drugs and violent escape attempts at prisons, and that advocates the murder of fellow inmates. If credible and otherwise admissible evidence to that effect had been presented, we would have a much different case. But, after reaching an agreement with Dawson, the prosecution limited its proof regarding the Aryan Brotherhood to the stipulation. The brief stipulation proved only that an Aryan Brotherhood prison gang originated in California in the 1960's, that it entertains white racist beliefs, and that a separate gang in the Delaware prison system calls itself the Aryan Brotherhood. We conclude that the narrowness of the stipulation left the Aryan Brotherhood evidence totally without relevance to Dawson's sentencing proceeding...
Dawson's First Amendment rights were violated by the admission of the Aryan Brotherhood evidence in this case, because the evidence proved nothing more than Dawson's abstract beliefs... Delaware might have avoided this problem if it had presented evidence showing more than mere abstract beliefs on Dawson's part, but on the present record one is left with the feeling that the Aryan Brotherhood evidence was employed simply because the jury would find these beliefs morally reprehensible. Because Delaware failed to do more, we cannot find the evidence was properly admitted as relevant character evidence."

Held:  Vacated and remanded.
Justice Vote: 8 Pro vs. 1 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • White, B.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H.  Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stevens, J.  Pro (Joined majority opinion) 
  • Souter, D.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C.  Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the Supreme Court vacated and remanded Delaware's Supreme Court decision in a 8-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.