Apparently eager to overrule a 1987 decision that bars a victim's family from testifying against a convicted killer, the Supreme Court's conservative majority said Friday that it would speed up consideration of a Tennessee case in hopes of reversing the earlier ruling by July.
Three liberal justices dissented, accusing their colleagues of an unseemly rush to judgment.At issue is whether a jury deciding the fate of a convicted killer can be told about the murder's impact on the victim's family.
On June 15, 1987, the Supreme Court ruled out such "victim impact" testimony in death penalty cases. It reasoned that a family member's testimony can be so powerful that it could "improperly divert" the jury's attention from the actions and the character of the killer.
The ruling, in the case of Booth vs. Maryland, was seen as a blow to the "victim's rights" movement. But it came on a 5-4 vote and was written by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who resigned from the court two weeks later.
Since then, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and several of his conservative allies have sought to reverse the decision. But they have been frustrated in their effort to find a suitable vehicle for doing so.
On Friday, the justices had before them several hundred pending appeals, including one from Pervis Payne, an inmate on Tennessee's Death Row who challenged his sentence. He had been convicted in 1988 of killing a 28-year-old woman. During his sentencing hearing, the victim's mother testified that the crime had devastated the woman's 3-year-old son. Ignoring the Booth ruling, the Tennessee courts upheld Payne's death sentence.