Payne v. Tennessee

United States Supreme Court

501 U.S. 808, 111 S.Ct. 2597, 115 L.Ed. 2d. 720 (1991)

 

            In this case the Supreme Court reconsiders its earlier decisions barring the admission of victim impact evidence during the sentencing phase of a capital trial.

 

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

            . . . The petitioner, Pervis Tyrone Payne, was convicted by a jury on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder in the first degree. He was sentenced to death for each of the murders, and to 30 years in prison for the assault.

 

            The victims of Payne’s offenses were 28-year-old Charisse Christopher, her 2-year-old daughter Lacie, and her 3-year-old son Nicholas. The three lived together in an apartment in Millington, Tennessee, across the hall from Payne’s girlfriend, Bobbie Thomas. On Saturday, June 27, 1987, Payne visited Thomas’ apartment several times in expectation of her return from her mother’s house in Arkansas, but found no one at home. On one visit, he left his overnight bag, containing clothes and other items for his weekend stay, in the hallway outside Thomas’ apartment. With the bag were three cans of malt liquor.

 

            Payne passed the morning and early afternoon injecting cocaine and drinking beer. Later, he drove around the town with a friend in the friend’s car, each of them taking turns reading a pornographic magazine. Sometime around 3 p.m., Payne returned to the apartment complex, entered the Christophers’ apartment, and began making sexual advances towards Charisse. Charisse resisted and Payne became violent. A neighbor who resided in the apartment directly beneath the Christophers, heard Charisse screaming, “‘Get out, get out’ as if she were telling the children to leave.” The noise briefly subsided and then began “horribly loud.” The neighbor called the police after she heard a “blood curdling scream” from the Christopher apartment. . . .

 

            When the first police officer arrived at the scene, he immediately encountered Payne who was leaving the apartment building, so covered with blood that he appeared to be “sweating blood.” The officer confronted Payne, who responded, “I’m the complainant.” . . . When the officer asked, “What’s going on up there?” Payne struck the officer with the overnight bag, dropped his tennis shoes, and fled.

 

            Inside the apartment, the police encountered a horrifying scene. Blood covered the walls and floor throughout the unit. Charisse and her children were lying on the floor in the kitchen. Nicholas, despite several wounds inflicted by a butcher knife that completely penetrated through his body from front to back, was still breathing. Miraculously, he survived, but not until after undergoing seven hours of surgery and a transfusion of 1700 cc’s of blood—400 to 500 cc’s more than his estimated normal blood volume. Charisse and Lacie were dead.

 

            Charisse’s body was found on the kitchen floor on her back, her legs fully extended. She had sustained 42 direct knife wounds and 42 defensive wounds on her arms and hands. The wounds were caused by 41 separate thrusts of a butcher knife. None of the 84 wounds inflicted by Payne were individually fatal; rather, the cause of death was most likely bleeding from all of the wounds.

 

            Lacie’s body was on the kitchen floor near her mother. She had suffered stab wounds to the chest, abdomen, back, and head. The murder weapon, a butcher knife, was found at her feet. Payne’s baseball cap was snapped on her arm near her elbow. Three cans of malt liquor bearing Payne’s fingerprints were found on a table near her body, and a fourth empty one was on the landing outside the apartment door.

 

            Payne was apprehended later that day hiding in the attic of the home of a former girlfriend. As he descended the stairs of the attic, he stated to the arresting officers, “Man, I ain’t killed no woman.” According to one of the officers, Payne had “a wild look about him. His pupils were contracted. He was foaming at the mouth, saliva. He appeared to be very nervous. He was breathing real rapid.” He had blood on his body and clothes and several scratches across his chest. It was later determined that the blood stains matched the victims’ blood types. A search of his pockets revealed a packet containing cocaine residue, a hypodermic syringe wrapper, and a cap from a hypodermic syringe. His overnight bag, containing a bloody white shirt, was found in a nearby dumpster.

 

            At trial, Payne took the stand and, despite the overwhelming and relatively uncontroverted evidence against him, testified that he had not harmed any of the Christophers. Rather, he asserted that another man had raced by him as he was walking up the stairs to the floor where the Christophers lived. He stated that he had gotten blood on himself when, after hearing moans from the Christopher’s apartment, he had tried to help the victims. According to his testimony, he panicked and fled when he heard police sirens and noticed the blood on his clothes. The jury returned guilty verdicts against Payne on all counts.

 

            During the sentencing phase of the trial, Payne presented the testimony of four witnesses: his mother and father, Bobbie Thomas, and Dr. John T. Huston, a clinical psychologist specializing in criminal court evaluation work. Bobbie Thomas testified that she met Payne at church, during a time when she was being abused by her husband. She stated that Payne was a very caring person, and that he devoted much time and attention to her three children, who were being affected by her marital difficulties. She said that the children had come to love him very much and would miss him and that he “behaved just like a father that loved his kids.” She asserted that he did not drink, nor did he use drugs, and that it was generally inconsistent with Payne’s character to have committed these crimes.

 

            Dr. Huston testified that based on Payne’s low score on an IQ test, Payne was “mentally handicapped.” Huston also said that Payne was neither psychotic nor schizophrenic, and that Payne was the most polite prisoner he had ever met. Payne’s parents testified that their son had no prior criminal record and had never been arrested. They also stated that Payne had no history of alcohol or drug abuse, he worked with his father as a painter, he was good with children, and that he was a good son.

 

            The State presented the testimony of Charisse’s mother, Mary Zvolanek. When asked how Nicholas had been affected by the murders of his mother and sister, she responded:

 

He cries for his mom. He doesn’t seem to understand why she doesn’t come home. And he cries for his sister Lacie. He comes to me many times during the week and asks me, Grandmama, do you miss my Lacie. And I tell him yes. He says, I’m worried about my Lacie. . . .

 

            In arguing for the death penalty during closing argument, the prosecutor commented on the continuing effects of Nicholas’ experience, stating:

 

But we do know that Nicholas was alive. And Nicholas was in the same room. Nicholas was still conscious. His eyes were open. He responded to the paramedics. He was able to follow their directions. He was able to hold his intestines in as he was carried to the ambulance. So he knew what happened to his mother and baby sister. . . .

 

There is nothing you can do to ease the pain of any of the families involved in this case. There is nothing you can do to ease the pain of Bernice or Carl Payne, and that’s a tragedy. There is nothing you can do basically to ease the pain of Mr. and Mrs. Zvolanek, and that’s a tragedy. They will have to live with it the rest of their lives. There is obviously nothing you can do for Charisse and Lacie Jo. But there is something that you can do for Nicholas.

 

Somewhere down the road Nicholas is going to grow up, hopefully. He’s going to want to know what happened. And he is going to know what happened to his baby sister and his mother. He is going to want to know what type of justice was done. He is going to want to know what happened. With your verdict, you will provide the answer. . . .

 

In the rebuttal to Payne’s closing argument, the prosecutor stated:

 

You saw the videotape this morning. You saw what Nicholas Christopher will carry in his mind forever. When you talk about cruel, when you talk about atrocious, and when you talk about heinous, that picture will always come into your mind, probably throughout the rest of your lives.

 

. . . No one will ever know about Lacie Jo because she never had the chance to grow up. Her life was taken from her at the age of two years old. So, no, there won’t be a high school principal to talk about Lacie Jo Christopher, and there won’t be anybody to take her to her high school prom. And there won’t be anybody there—there won’t be her mother there or Nicholas’ mother there to kiss him at night. His mother will never kiss him good night or pat him as he goes off to bed, or hold him and sing him a lullaby.

 

[Petitioner’s attorney] wants you to think about a good reputation, people who love the defendant and things about him. He doesn’t want you to think about the people who love Charisse Christopher, her mother and daddy who loved her. The people who loved little Lacie Jo, the grandparents who are still here. The brother who mourns for her every single day and wants to know where his best little playmate is. He doesn’t have anybody to watch cartoons with him, a little one. These are the things that go into why it is especially cruel, heinous, and atrocious, the burden that that child will carry forever. . . .

 

 

            The jury sentenced Payne to death on each of the murder counts.

 

            The Supreme Court of Tennessee affirmed the convictions and sentence. The court rejected Payne’s contention that the admission of the grandmother’s testimony and the State’s closing argument constituted prejudicial violations of his rights under the Eighth Amendment. . . .

 

            We granted certiorari . . . to reconsider our holdings in Booth [v. Maryland] and [South Carolina v.] Gathers. . . .

 

            We are now of the view that a State may properly conclude that for the jury to assess meaningfully the defendant’s moral culpability and blameworthiness, it should have before it at the sentencing phase evidence of the specific harm caused by the defendant. “[T]he State has a legitimate interest in counteracting the mitigating evidence which the defendant is entitled to put in, by reminding the sentencer that just as the murderer should be considered as an individual, so too the victim is an individual whose death represents a unique loss to society and in particular to his family.” . . . Booth deprives the State of the full moral force of its evidence and may prevent the jury from having before it all the information necessary to determine the proper punishment for a first-degree murder.

 

            The present case is an example of the potential for such unfairness. The capital sentencing jury heard testimony from Payne’s girlfriend that they met at church, that he was affectionate, caring, kind to her children, that he was not an abuser of drugs or alcohol, and that it was inconsistent with his character to have committed the murder. Payne’s parents testified that he was a good son, and a clinical psychologist testified that Payne was an extremely polite prisoner and suffered from a low IQ. None of this testimony was related to the circumstances of Payne’s brutal crimes. In contrast, the only evidence of the impact of Payne’s offenses during the sentencing phase was Nicholas’ grandmother’s description—in response to a single question—that the child misses his mother and baby sister. Payne argues that the Eighth Amendment commands that the jury’s death sentence must be set aside because the jury heard this testimony. But the testimony illustrated quite poignantly some of the harm that Payne’s killing had caused; there is nothing unfair about allowing the jury to bear in mind that harm at the same time as it considers the mitigating evidence introduced by the defendant. The Supreme Court of Tennessee in this case obviously felt the unfairness of the rule pronounced by Booth when it said “[i]t is an affront to the civilized members of the human race to say that at sentencing in a capital case, a parade of witnesses may praise the background, character and good deeds of Defendant (as was done in this case) without limitation as to relevancy, but nothing may be said that bears upon the character of, or the harm imposed, upon the victims.” . . .

 

            We thus hold that if the State chooses to permit the admission of victim impact evidence and prosecutorial argument on that subject, the Eighth Amendment erects no per se bar. A State may legitimately conclude that evidence about the victim and about the impact of the murder on the victim’s family is relevant to the jury’s decision as to whether or not the death penalty should be imposed. There is no reason to treat such evidence differently than other relevant evidence is treated. . . . Reconsidering these decisions now, we conclude for the reasons heretofore stated, that they were wrongly decided and should be, and now are, overruled. We accordingly affirm the judgment of the Supreme Court of Tennessee.

 

 

Justice O’Connor, with whom Justice White and Justice Kennedy join, concurring. . . .

 

 

Justice Scalia, with whom Justice O’Connor and Justice Kennedy join [in part], concurring. . . .

 

 

Justice Souter, with whom Justice Kennedy joins, concurring. . . .

 

 

Justice Marshall, with whom Justice Blackmun joins, dissenting. . . .

 

 

Justice Stevens, with whom Justice Blackmun joins, dissenting.

 

            . . . Until today our capital punishment jurisprudence has required that any decision to impose the death penalty be based solely on evidence that tends to inform the jury about the character of the offense and the character of the defendant. Evidence that serves no purpose other than to appeal to the sympathies or emotions of the jurors has never been considered admissible. Thus, if a defendant, who had murdered a convenience store clerk in cold blood in the course of an armed robbery, offered evidence unknown to him at the time of the crime about the immoral character of his victim, all would recognize immediately that the evidence was irrelevant and inadmissible. Even-handed justice requires that the same constraint be imposed on the advocate of the death penalty. . . .