Case Overview


Vacated and remanded. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.


David Dawson was convicted of first degree murder and various other crimes. During the sentencing hearing, the prosecution introduced evidence that Mr. Dawson was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white racist prison gang. This evidence was not clearly relevant to any other evidence offered by the prosecution or the defense. The trial court ultimately imposed the death penalty. The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence.

The First Amendment protects an individual's right to join groups and associate with others holding similar beliefs. Aptheker v. Secretary of State, 378 U.S. 500 (1964). The Constitution, however, does not erect a per se barrier to the admission of relevant evidence concerning one's beliefs and associations at sentencing simply because those beliefs and associations are protected by the First Amendment. United States v. Abel, 469 U.S. 45 (1984).

Importance of Case

The Court refused to defer to the lower court rulings that this evidence was relevant and instead stood firmly behind an unpopular defendant's right to freedom of association. The Court concluded that the evidence of Mr. Dawson's gang membership was irrelevant to the sentencing proceeding and therefore should not have been allowed. The Court held that evidence proving only a defendant's abstract beliefs cannot be introduced. Prosecutors, however, are able to introduce such evidence if it is otherwise relevant to the proceeding. The Court noted that the Delaware Supreme Court, upon reconsidering the case, might find that the introduction of this evidence was "harmless error" and conclude that a new sentencing hearing was not necessary.

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