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.