Payne v. Tennessee Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The Petitioner, Pervis Tyrone Payne (Petitioner), was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder. During the sentencing phase of the trial, among other witnesses, the prosecution introduced the testimony of Mary Zvolanek (Zvolanek), who was the mother of one victim and the grandmother of the other to speak to the impact of the murder on Nicholas, a survivor of the attack leading to the murders and whose mother and sister were the victims. The jury sentenced the Petitioner to death on each count.

Facts of the case

A Tennessee court tried Pervis Payne for murdering Charisse Christopher and her daughter Lacie. In hopes of avoiding the death penalty, Payne provided four witnesses testifying to his good character. The prosecution had Charisse’s mother share how Charisse’s death had impacted her surviving son Nicholas. In closing arguments, the prosecutor referenced Nicholas’ loss of his mother when calling for the death penalty. The jury convicted him and sentenced him to death. Payne argued that the prosecution could not use testimony of how the victim’s death impacted family members when contending for the death penalty. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against him.


Does the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibit a capital sentencing jury from considering victim impact evidence relating to the personal characteristics of the victim and the emotional impact of the crimes on the victim’s family?


No. United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court) precedent had held that victim impact evidence shall not be considered. The underlying principle behind such a rule was that victim impact evidence presents factors about which the defendant may have been unaware and therefore, the evidence has nothing to do with the blameworthiness of a particular defendant. In other words, no evidence outside that relating directly to the circumstances of the crime was admitted. In the present case, however, the Supreme Court expressed 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. Hence, a State may permit the admission of victim impact evidence, as the Eighth Amendment presents no per se bar.


If the state chose to permit the admission of victim impact evidence and prosecutorial argument on that subject, the Eighth Amendment presented no per se bar. A state could legitimately conclude that evidence about the victim and about the impact of the murder on the victim’s family was relevant to the jury’s decision as to whether or not the death penalty should be imposed. There was no reason to treat such evidence differently than other relevant evidence was treated. In so holding, the Supreme Court of the United States overruled its prior decisions in Booth v. Maryland and South Carolina v. Gathers (791 SW2d 10).

  • Case Brief: 1991
  • Petitioner: Pervis Tyrone Payne
  • Respondent: Tennessee
  • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Citation: 501 US 808 (1991)
Argued: Apr 24, 1991
Decided: Jun 27, 1991