By Christopher Zoukis
In a brief, unsigned opinion handed down October 11, the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown out the death sentence an Oklahoma jury gave Shaun Michael Bosse after convicting him in 2010 of the first-degree murders of his former girlfriend and her two young children.
Bosse fatally stabbed 25-year-old Katrina Griffin and her eight-year-old son in her mobile home, then set it on fire, causing her six-year-old daughter, whom he had locked inside a closet, to die from burns and smoke inhalation.
Over Bosse’s objection, during the sentencing phase of the 2012 trial, the judge allowed Griffin’s parents and a stepparent to testify on the impact the crime had on them, give assessments of Bosse’s character, and offer their recommendation on his sentence. All three relatives urged the jury to sentence Bosse to death.
In its brief, unsuccessfully urging the Supreme Court not to take Bosse’s appeal and to leave his death sentence undisturbed, Oklahoma argued that there was no need for it to exclude the relatives’ testimony, despite the Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Booth v. Maryland, which held the Eighth Amendment is violated by such testimony.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals had upheld Bosse’s sentence, saying it viewed the Booth decision’s bar on such testimony as having been overruled by the 1991 Supreme Court decision in Payne v. Tennessee. The Payne case allowed testimony about victims’ personal characteristics and the emotional impact the crime had on other persons during the sentencing phase of potential capital punishment cases.
The Payne decision explicitly disclaimed any effect on the basis of the Booth case, of recommendations by relatives on what punishment the defendant should receive, since that issue was not raised in the Payne case.
The Oklahoma court had also noted that 15 witnesses — Bosse’s relatives, friends and other acquaintances — had offered testimony urging that he not receive a death sentence, and questioned the fairness of excluding testimony by Griffin’s relatives.
Besides arguing the Supreme Court’s Booth decision had been overruled by the Payne decision, the state also argued that it did not need to follow a precedent by its federal circuit court, the Oklahoma City-based 10th Circuit, which forbade relatives’ recommendations to the jury in potential death penalty cases. Further, it argued that an automatic review of death sentences required under state law would be enough to ensure there was no unfairness to Bosse.
But the Supreme Court, in its opinion in Bosse v. Oklahoma, said the state had unconstitutionally allowed the relatives to make recommendations to the jury on what sentence should be imposed on Bosse. It also made clear the Payne decision had not eroded the Booth decision’s bar on relatives’ sentencing recommendations, and reminded the state court it remains bound by Supreme Court rulings until the high court says they no longer apply.
The high court sent the case back to the state appeals court to consider what sentence Bosse would have received if the impermissible testimony from the relatives had not be given. That raises the possibility the state court, on review, might decide that the relatives’ recommendations made no difference in the jury’s decision, and opt to retain the death sentence for Bosse.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com