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U.S. Supreme Court

Skipper v. South Carolina, 476 U.S. 1 (1986)

Skipper v. South Carolina

No. 84-6859

Argued February 24, 1986

Decided April 29, 1986

476 U.S. 1


Petitioner was convicted of capital murder and rape after a jury trial in a South Carolina court. The State sought the death penalty, and a separate sentencing hearing was held before the trial jury. Following the State's introduction of evidence in aggravation of the offense, petitioner presented as mitigating evidence his own testimony and that of his former wife, his mother, his sister, and his grandmother. He then sought to introduce testimony of two jailers and a "regular visitor" to the effect that he had "made a good adjustment" during the 7 1/2 months he had spent in jail between his arrest and trial. The trial court ruled such evidence irrelevant and inadmissible, and petitioner was sentenced to death. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the death sentence, rejecting petitioner's contention that the trial court had committed constitutional error in excluding the testimony of the jailers and visitor.

Held: The trial court's exclusion from the sentencing hearing of the testimony of the jailers and the visitor denied petitioner his right to place before the sentencing jury all relevant evidence in mitigation of punishment. Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U. S. 586; Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104. Pp. 476 U. S. 4-9.

(a) The record does not support the State's contention that the trial court's ruling was no more than an application of rules restricting the use of lay opinion testimony. Pp. 476 U. S. 5-6.

(b) Nor is there any support in the record for the State's contention that the trial court's ruling was not improper because it did not prevent petitioner from introducing evidence of past good conduct in jail, but

Page 476 U. S. 2

only foreclosed the introduction of "irrelevant" evidence of his future adaptability to prison life. Pp. 476 U. S. 6-7.

(c) And, contrary to the State's suggestion, it is implausible, on the facts, to characterize the excluded evidence as cumulative, and its exclusion as harmless error. Pp. 476 U. S. 7-9.

285 S.C. 42, 328 S.E.2d 68, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BURGER, C.J.,and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 9.

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