In a rare appearance before the Supreme Court, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh asked that jurors deciding whether to impose the death penalty be allowed to weigh any impact the murder may have had on the victim's family and friends.
Thornburgh, speaking for the administration, asked the court to reverse two of its recent decisions that the degree of emotional or financial suffering by survivors of a murder victim cannot be admitted during the sentencing phase of a trial to persuade a jury to impose the death penalty.A number of justices have expressed regret over both their 1987 Booth vs. Maryland ruling and 1989 South Carolina vs. Gathers decision, which said such victim impact testimony violated the Eighth Amend-ment.
The court took a new case out of Tennessee this term in part to decide if the rulings should be overturned.
"It is important for the jury to have the full picture of the harm (caused by a killing)," Thornburgh told the court. He said "safety valves" in the judicial system would protect suspects from having their rights violated and that the current blanket prohibition on victim impact statements is too broad.
Charles Burson, attorney general of Tennessee, said the Booth and Gathers decisions force juries to think of victims as "abstract" and "generic."