Supreme Court And The Victim Impact Assessment

How the Supreme Court developed the law governing the use of Victim Impact Statements

How the Supreme Court developed the laws governing the use of victim impact assessment is based on analysis of the impact these statements have on the sentence cases. Most importantly the Supreme Court through justification of and quoting the eighth amendment gives it basis for challenging the use of victim impact assessment. Furthermore, through the fourteenth amendment, the Supreme Court, by use of Due process clause offer basis for exclusion of victim’s impact assessment (, 2015).Through this it can be argued that the Supreme Court develops the law through examination of effects, analysis of existing conditions and by amendment such as eighth and fourteenth amendment in order to challenge the use of victim impact assessment use in sentencing.

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Why the Supreme Court developed the law governing the use of Victim Impact Statements

Established in 1982 by the federal government under the Presidential Task Force on Victims of Crime, it was recommended that Victim impact statements be taken and distributed to judges before passing sentence. There were also supposed to be provided at sentencing in federal cases. It had gained so much popularity in the mid-1980s (McShane& Williams III 2013). This being the fact , many supported the idea claiming that it offers victims an opportunity to relate the harm done to them as well as expressing their concerns  the overall expectation being that this will improve the sentencing  process. Despite this Victim impact statements have been met with various criticism  which include reducing judge’s ability to withstand public pressure , causing delay to the justice system as well as increasing costs , the most significant concern being increasing cost for defendants (McShane& Williams III, 2013). Concerns were also raised that inclusion of victim impact assessment in the sentencing process will reduce uniformity in sentencing  and introduce greater degree or arbitrariness or even result in harsh treatment of the offenders.  This issue according to McShane& Williams III (2013) forms the basis court challenges to the constitutionality of victim impact assessment.

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It is for such reasons that the Supreme Court established law governing its use.  In 1987 for instance, when handling the case Booth v. Maryland 1987 , the supreme court rule in a 5-4 decision that victim impact assessment are unconstitutional especially in capital cases. The court also expressed its concerns that such information is irrelevant to capital sentencing decision and its use creates constitutionally acceptable risk the jury may impose death penalty in an arbitrary and capricious manner (McShane& Williams III 2013). It influences juror’s choice of execution over life imprisonment (Karmen, 2013).

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The main issue here is what can be termed as clouding sentencing decisions which would result in worse cases such as death sentence in situations where offenders do not deserve. The supreme court always base it reason for coming up with laws prohibiting use of victim impact assessment as witnessed in Booth v. Maryland , that the information was not only irrelevant but also unduly inflammatory  and violated the eight amendment.

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Looking at the case South Carolina V, Gathers 1989, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling by South Carolina Supreme court and overturned a death sentence for the victim. This case did not directly involve the victim impact assessment as such but the Supreme Court reaffirmed and extended its decision on Booth v. Maryland, by stressing that death sentence must be passed in relation to the moral culpability of the defendant. Furthermore looking at this case, it is established some information provided might not be related to the sentencing decision at all. The contents of the prosecution’s description included information related to the religion found near the minister’s body. Such information is considered to be of a person’s character and was irrelevant to the sentencing decisions (McShane& Williams III 2013). Here it is clear that the court overruled the death sentence on the basis that the victim’s statements violated the eighth amendment and focused more on the personal characteristics of the victim.

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The United States Supreme court in one of the most recently cases revised itself specifically on the allowing victim impact statements claiming that it does not bar victim evidence as such through the Eighth Amendment in Payne v. Tennessee (1991). There are also other reasons which could possibly lead to exclusion of victims Impact assessment which is, in case the evidence is so unduly prejudicial and if it tenders the trial fundamentally unfair. Payne was sentenced to death on each of the murder counts. There are reasons as to why Supreme Court came up with laws regarding use of victim assessment which are very much evident here.  Instances when the statements are not related for example. The Supreme Court claimed that in this case the grandmother’s testimony was technically irrelevant. The court under this case clearly brought out one thing , that admissibility of victim impact assessment was not to be determined on case-by-case basis but such evidence was per se inadmissible in sentencing phase of a capital case except to the extent that it relates directly to the circumstance of the crime.

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