Payne v. Tennessee

PETITIONER:Pervis Tyrone Payne
LOCATION:Shelby County Criminal Court

DOCKET NO.: 90-5721
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: Tennessee Supreme Court

CITATION: 501 US 808 (1991)
ARGUED: Apr 24, 1991
DECIDED: Jun 27, 1991

Charles W. Burson – on behalf of the Respondent
Dick Thornburgh – Attorney General, Department of Justice, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the respondent
J. Brooke Lathram – argued the cause for petitioner

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 prohibit a capital sentencing jury from considering the impact that a victim’s death had upon surviving family members?

Media for Payne v. Tennessee

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 24, 1991 in Payne v. Tennessee

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 27, 1991 in Payne v. Tennessee

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 90-5721, Payne against Tennessee.

In this case, the petitioner was convicted of the first degree murder of a mother and of the mother’s two-year-old daughter, and a first degree assault with intent to murder the mother’s three-year-old son.

During the sentencing phase of his trial, the petitioner called his parents, his girlfriend, and a clinical psychologist, each of whom testified as to various mitigating aspects of his character and background.

The state called the son’s grandmother who testified that the child missed his mother and baby sister.

In arguing for the death penalty, the prosecutor commented on the continuing effects on the surviving child of his experience and on the effects of the crimes upon the victim’s family.

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

The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed rejecting petitioner’s contention that the admission of the grandmother’s testimony and the state’s closing argument violated his Eighth Amendment rights under two of this Court’s recent decisions, Booth against Maryland and South Carolina against Gathers, which held that evidence in argument relating to the victim and the impact of a victim’s death on the victim’s family are automatically inadmissible at a capital sentencing hearing.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we hold that the Eighth Amendment erects no automatic bar prohibiting a capital sentencing jury from considering victim-impact evidence relating to the victim’s personal characteristic and the emotional impact of a murder on the victim’s family are precluding a prosecutor from arguing such evidence at a capital sentencing hearing.

To the extent that they held to the contrary, Booth and Gathers are overruled.

Booth and Gathers were based on several premises which we believe were faulty as the basis for annunciating a constitutional rule.

One of these premisses was that only evidence of blameworthiness on the part of the defendant is admissible at the sentencing stage, and that evidence relating to harm caused to the victim’s family does not bear on that issue.

The Victim’s rights movement is fairly recent in the law.

It is based on the notion that in the process of apprehending and prosecuting criminal defendants, the interest of the victim and the victim’s family are often lost sight of.

The victim becomes simply a statistic.

Many states have changed their laws to allow the sentencing authority to consider the effect of the crime on the victim and the victim’s family.

The United States Constitution is not an evidentiary code for state criminal proceedings and it does not free state criminal procedures of any particular moment of time so long as the state procedures afford due process of law and do not violate any other constitutional provision.

They may change with changing time.

In fact, assessment of a harm caused by a defendant has long been an important factor in determining the appropriate punishment for the crime and victim-impact evidence is simply another method of informing the sentencing authority about such harm.

Particularly in the light of our decisions in Lockett and Eddings where we have held that the defendant is entitled to the most broad range of evidence in the bearing of his culpability.

We think it is not unreasonable for the states to wish to remind the jury that the defendant is not the only individual to be considered in the process of criminal sentencing, nor do we think there is merit in the concern voiced in Booth that the admission of victim-impact evidence permits the jury to find that defendants whose victims were prominent in their communities are more deserving of punishment than those whose victims are perceived to be less worthy.

Such evidence is not generally offered to encourage comparative judgments of that sort, but it is designed to show instead each victim’s uniqueness as an individual human being.

In the event that victim-impact evidence introduced which is so unduly prejudicial that it renders the trial fundamentally unfair, the Fourth Amendment’s Due Process Clause provides a mechanism for relief.

Thus, a state may properly conclude that for the jury to assess meaningfully the defendant’s moral culpability and blameworthiness, it should have before that the sentencing phase victim-impact evidence.

Justice O’Connor has filed a concurring opinion in which Justices White and Kennedy have joined; Justice Scalia has filed a concurring opinion in part 2 of which Justices O’Connor and Kennedy have joined; Justice Souter filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Kennedy joins.

John Paul Stevens:

Justice Marshall has filed a dissenting opinion.

William H. Rehnquist:

Hold it, that was a mistake.

We have further proceedings.

Justice Stevens is announcing the dissent in this case.

John Paul Stevens:

Justice Marshall has filed a dissenting opinion which Justice Blackmun has joined, and I have filed a separate dissenting opinion which I shall summarize.

This is a case in which the evidence properly admitted at the trial was not only sufficient to prove defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but also may well have been sufficient to convince the jury that the horrible character of this gruesome crime warranted the death penalty.

John Paul Stevens:

For that reason, the Tennessee Supreme Court concluded that the victim impact testimony given by the grandmother of the child was harmless error.

This Court granted certiorari not to review that holding, but rather to have the parties present argument on the question whether our recent decision in Booth against Maryland should be overruled.

Not surprisingly, the Court has taken that action today.

The importance of this decision must be viewed in a broader perspective than the facts of this one sad case.

The novel rule that the Court announces today represents a dramatic departure from the principles that have governed our capital sentencing jurisprudence for decades.

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.

In Williams against New York, a case decided in 1949, this Court considered the scope of the inquiry that should perceive the imposition of a death sentence.

Relying on practices that had developed, and I am quoting Justice Black, “both before and since the American colonies became a nation”, Justice Black described the wide latitude that had been accorded judges in considering the source and type of evidence that is relevant to the sentencing determination.

Notably, that opinion refers not only to the relevance of evidence establishing the defendant’s guilt, but also to the relevance of the fullest information possible concerning the defendant’s life and characteristics.

Victim-impact evidence was unheard of when Williams was decided.

The relevant evidence of harm to society consisted of proof that the defendant was guilty of the offense charged in the indictment.

As the Court acknowledges today, the use of victim-impact evidence is of recent origin.

In so far as the Court’s jurisprudence is concerned, this type of evidence made its first appearance in 1987 in Booth against Maryland.

In his opinion for the Court in that case, Justice Powell noted that our prior cases had stated that the question whether an individual defendant should be executed is to be determined on the basis of the character of the individual and the circumstances of the crime.

Relying on several recent cases, the Court concluded that unless evidence has some bearing on the defendant’s personal responsibility and moral guilt, its admission would create a risk that a death sentence might be based on considerations that are constitutionally impermissible or totally irrelevant to the sentencing process.

Evidence that serve no purpose except to describe the personal characteristics of the victim and the emotional impact of the crime on the victim’s family was therefore constitutionally irrelevant.

Today, however, relying on nothing more than the dissenting opinions in Booth and Gathers, the Court abandons rules of relevance that are older than the nation itself and ventured into an uncharted sea of irrelevance.

Today’s majority has obviously been moved by an argument that has strong political appeal but no proper place in a reasoned judicial opinion.

Because Chief Justice Burger’s opinion for the plurality in Lockett against Ohio recognizes the defendant’s right to introduce all mitigating evidence that may inform the jury about the character of the defendant, the Court suggests that fairness requires that the state be allowed to respond with similar evidence about the character of the victim.

This argument is a classic non-sequitur.

The victim is not on trial.

Her character, whether good or bad, cannot therefore constitute either an aggravating or mitigating circumstance.

Even if introduction of evidence about the victim could be equated with introduction of evidence about the defendant, the argument would remain flawed in both its premise and its conclusion.

The suggestion that exclusion of victim-impact evidence results in a significantly imbalanced sentencing procedure is simply inaccurate.

Just as the defendant is entitled to introduce any relevant mitigating evidence, so the State may rebut that evidence and may designate any relevant conduct to be an aggravating factor provided that the factor is sufficiently well-defined and consistently applied to cabin the sentencer’s discretion.

In its ground-breaking decision today, the Court makes no effort to identify the limits on the prosecutor’s use of victim-impact evidence.

The premise that a criminal prosecution requires an even-handed balance between the State and the defendant is also incorrect because the Constitution grants important rights to the criminal defendant and imposes special limitations on the State that are designed to protect the individual from overreaching by the disproportionately powerful State.

Thus, to take only the most obvious example, the State must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The majority attempts to justify the admission of victim-impact evidence by arguing that consideration of the harm caused by the crime has been an important factor in the exercise of sentencing discretion.

John Paul Stevens:

This statement is misleading and inaccurate.

The statement is misleading because it is not limited to harm that is foreseeable.

It is inaccurate because it fails to differentiate between legislative determinations and judicial sentencing.

It is true that in evaluation of the harm caused by different kinds of wrongful conduct is a critical aspect in legislative definitions of crime.

There is a rational correlation between moral culpability and foreseeable harm caused by criminal conduct.

But the majority cites no authority for the suggestion that unforeseeable and indirect harms to a victim’s family are properly considered as aggravating circumstance on an ad hoc case-by-case basis.

The majority also argues that its novel rule is appropriate to enable the jury to take into account the fact that each murder victim is a unique human being.

But in my opinion, the fact that each of us is unique is a proposition so obvious that it requires no evidentiary support.

What is not obvious is the way in which character or reputation in one case may differ from that of other possible victims.

Evidence offered to prove such differences can only be intended to identify some victims as more worthy of protection than others.

Such proof risks life or death decisions based on the same invidious motives as a prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty if a victim is White but to accept a plea bargain if the victim is Black.

Given the current popularity of capital punishment in a crime-ridden society, the political appeal of arguments that assume that increasing the severity of sentences is the best cure for the cancer of crime and the political strength of the victim’s rights movement, I recognize that today’s decision will be greeted with enthusiasm by a large number of concerned and thoughtful citizens.

The great tragedy of the decision, however, is the danger that the hydraulic pressure of public opinion that Justice Holmes once described and that properly influences the deliberation of democratic legislatures has played a role not only in the Court’s decision to hear this case and its decision to reach out to decide a constitutional question without even pausing to consider affirming on the basis of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s rationale, but even in its resolution of the constitutional issue involved.

Justice Blackmun has joined this dissenting opinion.

William H. Rehnquist:

And Justice Marshall has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Blackmun joins.