IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to read the statement submitted in court by the family of Irvin and Rose Bronstein without feeling sympathy for these innocent survivors and profound anger at the two men whose crime devastated the family. The Bronsteins, 78 and 75 years old, were murdered in their West Baltimore home four years ago. They had been tied up and stabbed numerous times by John Booth and Willie Reid, who had broken in to steal money to buy heroin. Both were convicted and sentenced to death. This week the Supreme Court vacated the penalty in the Booth case -- the Reid case is still on appeal -- because the family's statements about the impact of the crime on their lives were read to the jury before sentencing.
In light of an increasing public demand that attention be paid to victims' rights -- 36 states have statutes in this area -- this was a difficult question for the court. The justices were sharply divided, with four urging deference to state legislatures and jury consideration of the impact of the crime on survivors. But the majority ruled that some of the material in the statement was irrelevant -- a daughter's view that the killers could not be rehabilitated, for example -- and other parts inflammatory. Because the decision to invoke the death penalty must be so carefully considered, the justices held that sentencing hearings in capital cases must be focused on the background and record of the accused and the particular circumstances of the crime. It would be unconstitutional, for example, to treat two murderers differently simply because one killed a person with a large, loving and articulate family and the other killed an orphan or someone going through a bitter divorce.
Most of the advances achieved by victims' rights groups -- advances we think are a good thing -- are unaffected by the Supreme Court opinion, and that is good. Compensation, for example, improved treatment within the justice system, and the use of impact statements in all cases where the death penalty has not been sought have not been limited. In capital cases the sentencing judge or jury already knows a great deal about the victim and can continue to take into considerations a number of aggravating factors that reflect on the accused or the crime itself. But the court was right to exclude information beyond this which might result in the arbitrary application of the death penalty