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decided: March 9, 1992.



Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which White, Blackmun, Stevens, O'connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Souter, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed a concurring opinion. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

Author: Rehnquist

THE CHIEF JUSTICE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the introduction in a capital sentencing proceeding of the fact that the defendant was a member of an organization called the Aryan Brotherhood, where the evidence has no relevance to the issues being decided in the proceeding. We hold that they do.

Shortly after midnight on December 1, 1986, petitioner David Dawson and three other inmates escaped from the Delaware Correctional Center near Smyrna, Delaware. Dawson stole a car and headed south, while the other three inmates stole another car and drove north. Early that morning, Dawson burglarized a house near Kenton, Delaware, stealing a motorcycle jacket, several pocket watches, and containers of loose change. He then proceeded to the home of Richard and Madeline Kisner, located about half a mile from the burglary site. Mrs. Kisner was alone in the house, preparing to leave for work. Dawson brutally murdered Mrs. Kisner, stole the Kisners' car and some money, and fled further south.

He reappeared later that evening at the Zoo Bar in Milford, Delaware, wearing a motorcycle jacket that was too big for him. While at the bar, Dawson introduced himself to Patty Dennis, and told her that his name was "Abaddon," which he said meant "one of Satan's disciples." App. 80-81. Dawson was subsequently asked to leave the bar. Later that evening, a Delaware state police officer responded to a call to investigate a one-car accident. The car involved in the accident had been stolen from a location near the Zoo Bar and had been driven into a ditch, but the driver had left the scene. The police began a house-to-house search for Dawson, and found him at 5:25 the next morning, on the floor of a Cadillac parked about three-tenths of a mile from the accident site.

A jury convicted Dawson of first-degree murder, possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a felony, and various other crimes. The trial court then conducted a penalty hearing before the jury to determine whether Dawson should be sentenced to death for the first-degree murder conviction. See Del. Code Ann., Tit. 11, § 4209 (1987). The prosecution gave notice that it intended to introduce (1) expert testimony regarding the origin and nature of the Aryan Brotherhood, as well as the fact that Dawson had the words "Aryan Brotherhood" tattooed on the back of his right hand, (2) testimony that Dawson referred to himself as "Abaddon" and had the name "Abaddon" tattooed in red letters across his stomach, and (3) photographs of multiple swastika tattoos on Dawson's back and a picture of a swastika he had painted on the wall of his prison cell. Dawson argued that this evidence was inflammatory and irrelevant, and that its admission would violate his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Before the penalty phase began, the parties agreed to a stipulation regarding the Aryan Brotherhood evidence. The stipulation provided that

"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." App. 132.

In return for Dawson's agreement to the stipulation, the prosecution agreed not to call any expert witnesses to testify about the Aryan Brotherhood. Although Dawson agreed to the stipulation in order to avoid presentation of this expert testimony, it is apparent from the record and from the opinion of the Supreme Court of Delaware that he continued to assert that the admission of the stipulated facts into evidence violated the Constitution. 581 A. 2d 1078 (1990). At the penalty hearing, the prosecution read the stipulation to the jury and introduced evidence that Dawson had tattooed the words "Aryan Brotherhood" on his hand. The trial judge permitted the prosecution to present the evidence related to the name "Abaddon" as well, but excluded all of the swastika evidence. In addition, the prosecution submitted proof of Dawson's lengthy criminal record. Dawson, in turn, presented mitigating evidence based on the testimony of two family members and on the fact that he had earned good time credits in prison for enrolling in various drug and alcohol programs. The jury found three statutory aggravating circumstances, each making Dawson eligible for the death penalty under Delaware law; it determined (1) that the murder was committed by an escaped prisoner, (2) that the murder was committed during the commission of a burglary, and (3) that the murder was committed for pecuniary gain. See id., at 1102, and n. 27. The jury further concluded that the aggravating evidence outweighed the mitigating evidence, and recommended that Dawson be sentenced to death. The trial court, bound by that recommendation, imposed the death penalty.

The Supreme Court of Delaware affirmed the convictions and the death sentence. The court rejected Dawson's claim that the evidence concerning the Aryan Brotherhood and his use of the name "Abaddon" should have been excluded from the penalty hearing. It observed that having found at least one statutory aggravating factor, the jury was "required to make an individualized determination of whether Dawson should be executed or incarcerated for life, based upon Dawson's character, his record and the circumstances of the crime," and that it was desirable for the jury to have as much information before it as possible when making that decision. Id., at 1102-1103 (emphasis in original). The court acknowledged that the Constitution would prohibit the consideration of certain irrelevant factors during the sentencing process, but stated that " punishing a person for expressing his views or for associating with certain people is substantially different from allowing . . . evidence of [the defendant's] character [to be considered] where that character is a relevant inquiry.' " Id., at 1103. Because the evidence relating to the Aryan Brotherhood and the name "Abaddon" properly focused the jury's attention on Dawson's character, and did not appeal to the jury's prejudices concerning race, religion or political affiliation, the court upheld its introduction during the penalty phase. We granted certiorari, 499 U.S. (1991), to consider whether the admission of this evidence was constitutional error. We hold that its admission in this case was error, and so reverse.

We have held that the First Amendment protects an individual's right to join groups and associate with others holding similar beliefs. See Aptheker v. Secretary of State, 378 U.S. 500, 507 (1964); NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 460 (1958). Because his right to associate with the Aryan Brotherhood is constitutionally protected, Dawson argues, admission of evidence related to that association at his penalty hearing violated his constitutional rights. Relying on our statement in Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862 (1983), that an aggravating circumstance is invalid if "it authorizes a jury to draw adverse inferences from conduct that is constitutionally protected," he contends that the Constitution forbids the consideration in sentencing of any evidence concerning beliefs or activities that are protected under the First Amendment. Id. at 885.

We think this submission is, in the light of our decided cases, too broad. These cases emphasize that "the sentencing authority has always been free to consider a wide range of relevant material." Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. , (1991) (slip op., at 10); United States v. Tucker, 404 U.S. 443, 446 (1972) ("A judge may appropriately conduct an inquiry broad in scope, largely unlimited either as to the kind of information he may consider, or the source from which it may come"); Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241 (1949). We have previously upheld the consideration, in a capital sentencing proceeding, of evidence of racial intolerance and subversive advocacy where such evidence was relevant to the issues involved. In Barclay v. Florida, 463 U.S. 939 (1983), for example, we held that a sentencing judge in a capital case might properly take into consideration "the elements of racial hatred" in Barclay's crime as well as "Barclay's desire to start a race war." See id., at 949 (plurality opinion); id., at 970, and n. 18 (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgment).

One year later, in United States v. Abel, 469 U.S. 45 (1984), we 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. Though Abel did not involve a capital sentencing proceeding, its logic is perfectly applicable to such a proceeding. We therefore conclude that 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.

Although we cannot accept Dawson's broad submission, we nevertheless agree with him that, in 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.

As an initial matter, the second sentence of the stipulation, when carefully parsed, says nothing about the beliefs of the Aryan Brotherhood "chapter" in the Delaware prisons. Prior to trial, the prosecution acknowledged that there are differences among the various offshoots of the Aryan Brotherhood, stating that "there are cells or specific off-shoots within various local jurisdictions that don't see eye to eye or share a union, if you will." App. 33. But the juxtaposition of the second sentence with the first sentence, which describes the Aryan Brotherhood in California prisons as a "white racist prison gang," invited the jury to infer that the beliefs of the Delaware chapter are identical to those of the California chapter.

Even if the Delaware group to which Dawson allegedly belongs is racist, those beliefs, so far as we can determine, had no relevance to the sentencing proceeding in this case. For example, the Aryan Brotherhood evidence was not tied in any way to the murder of Dawson's victim. In Barclay, on the contrary, the evidence showed that the defendant's membership in the Black Liberation Army, and his consequent desire to start a "racial war," were related to the murder of a white hitchhiker. See 463 U.S., at 942-944 (plurality opinion). We concluded that it was most proper for the sentencing judge to "take into account the elements of racial hatred in this murder." Id., at 949. In the present case, however, the murder victim was white, as is Dawson; elements of racial hatred were therefore not involved in the killing.

Because the prosecution did not prove that the Aryan Brotherhood had committed any unlawful or violent acts, or had even endorsed such acts, the Aryan Brotherhood evidence was also not relevant to help prove any aggravating circumstance. In many cases, for example, associational evidence might serve a legitimate purpose in showing that a defendant represents a future danger to society. A defendant's membership in an organization that endorses the killing of any identifiable group, for example, might be relevant to a jury's inquiry into whether the defendant will be dangerous in the future. Other evidence concerning a defendant's associations might be relevant in proving other aggravating circumstances. But the inference which the jury was invited to draw in this case tended to prove nothing more than the abstract beliefs of the Delaware chapter. Delaware counters that even these abstract beliefs constitute a portion of Dawson's "character," and thus are admissible in their own right under Delaware law. Del. Code Ann., Tit. 11, § 4209(d) (1987). Whatever label is given to the evidence presented, however, we conclude that 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. Cf. Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989) ("The government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable"). 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.

Nor was the Aryan Brotherhood evidence relevant to rebut any mitigating evidence offered by Dawson. We have held that a capital defendant is entitled to introduce any relevant mitigating evidence that he proffers in support of a sentence less than death. Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 114 (1982); Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978) (plurality opinion). But just as the defendant has the right to introduce any sort of relevant mitigating evidence, the State is entitled to rebut that evidence with proof of its own. See Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S., at (slip op., at 15) ("The State has a legitimate interest in counteracting the mitigating evidence which the defendant is entitled to put in") (quotation omitted); id., at (STEVENS, J., dissenting). In this case, Dawson's mitigating evidence consisted of testimony about his kindness to family members, as well as evidence regarding good time credits he earned in prison for enrolling in various drug and alcohol programs. Delaware argues that because Dawson's evidence consisted of "good" character evidence, it was entitled to introduce any "bad" character evidence in rebuttal, ...

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