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Tison v. Arizona

    Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioners, Ricky and Raymond Tison (Petitioners), were sentenced by a judge to death after conviction for four murders under accomplice liability and felony-murder statutes. Neither of the Petitioners actually committed the murders himself, but rather, the deaths were caused by their co-felons, in the course of an armed robbery, kidnapping and car theft.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The death penalty may be imposed where there exists no specific intent to kill but rather, the defendant knowingly and substantially participated in criminal activities known to carry a grave risk of death.

    Facts. The Petitioners are the sons of Gary Tison (Tison). Tison had been sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a guard whom he killed in the course of a prison escape. After spending a number of years in jail, Tison’s wife, their three sons, Tison’s brother and other relatives engineered a prison escape. The escape was executed such that no shots were fired at the prison. However, after the escape, the getaway car had a flat tire. The group elected to flag down a passing motorist and steal a car. A car occupied by John Lyons, his wife Donnelda, his two-year-old son Christopher and his 15-year-old niece, Theresa Tyson, pulled over to render aid. Tison and his former cellmate Randy Greenawalt, intentionally shot and killed all four passengers. The Petitioners, despite not personally killing anyone, were convicted of capital murder in addition to armed robbery, kidnapping and car theft. Under Arizona law, a killing occurring during the perpetration of robbery or kidnapping i
    s capital murder and each participant in the kidnapping or robbery is legally responsible for the acts of his accomplices. The Petitioners each were sentenced to death for the four murders.

    Issue. Does the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution) prohibit the death penalty where the defendant participated substantially in the crime, but whose mental state is one of reckless indifference to the value of human life, rather than a mental state reflecting an intent to kill?

    Held. No. The Petitioners aided in bringing an arsenal of lethal weapons to a prison in order to arm two convicted murderers for the purpose of escaping. The Petitioner Raymond Tison performed the role of flagging down the victims, robbed the victims and guarded them at gunpoint. He then watched the killing without making an effort to assist the victims. The Petitioner Ricky Tison’s behavior was substantially the same. This conduct evidences a substantial participation in the crime and a reckless disregard for the value of human life. “[T]he reckless disregard for human life implicit in knowingly engaging in criminal activities known to carry a grave risk of death represents a highly culpable mental state, a mental state that may be taken into account in making a capital sentencing judgment when that conduct causes its natural, though also not inevitable, lethal result.”

    Dissent. Justice William Brennan (J. Brennan), with whom Justice Thurgood Marshall (J. Marshall), Justice Harry Blackmun (J. Blackmun), and Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) join, dissents. J. Brennan points out that intent should be irrelevant here since the petitioners did not commit an act that killed anyone. Rather, the majority focuses on their mental state with regard to acts done by others.

    Discussion. While the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) did not set forth a standard for what types of conduct and mental states warrant the imposition of the death penalty, on the facts at issue, major participation in the felony committed, coupled with a reckless disregard for the value of human life, demonstrates sufficient culpability for the imposition of the death penalt


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