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Payne v. Tennessee

Citation. 501 U.S. 808, 111 S. Ct. 2597, 115 L. Ed. 2d 720, 1991 U.S. 3821.
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Brief Fact Summary.

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.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution) does not per se bar a State from permitting the admission of victim impact evidence.


After spending a morning and early afternoon drinking beer and injecting cocaine, the Petitioner, at approximately 3:00 p.m., entered the apartment of 28-year-old Charisse Christopher (Ms. Christoper) and her two children, Lacie, age two and Nicholas, age three. The Petitioner made sexual advances toward Ms. Christopher. She resisted, which lead the Petitioner to kill both Ms. Christopher and Lacie. Nicholas was found with several severe stab wounds, but he managed to survive. The Petitioner was convicted by a jury of two counts of murder. At sentencing, the Petitioner presented the testimony of his mother and father, Bobbie Thomas and a clinical psychologist. The testimony largely was that the Petitioner was of good character, attended church and he was of low intelligence and mentally handicapped. The State presented the testimony of Ms. Christopher’s mother, who spoke of the negative impact of the murders on Nicholas. Furthermore, the prosecutor presented argument regarding
Nicholas’ experience. The jury sentenced the Petitioner to death on each count of murder.


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.


Justice Thurgood Marshall (J. Marshall), with whom Justice Harry Blackmun (J. Blakmun) joins, dissents solely on the ground that the majority overruled precedent by crediting the dissenting views expressed in those cases. J. Marshall states that neither the law nor the facts supporting the prior cases have changed, merely the personnel of the Supreme Court has changed.

Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens), with whom Justice Blackmun (J. Blackmun) joins, dissents on the ground that victim impact evidence sheds no light on the defendant’s guilt or moral culpability. Introducing such evidence encourages jurors to decide for the death penalty based on emotions rather than reason.


The majority believes in the principle that the prosecution is entitled to offset mitigating evidence presented by the defendant by introducing victim impact evidence. Only then can the jury meaningfully determine the proper punishment.

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