501 U.S. 808 (1991), 90-5721, Payne v. Tennessee

Docket Nº:No. 90-5721
Citation:501 U.S. 808, 111 S.Ct. 2597, 115 L.Ed.2d 720, 59 U.S.L.W. 4814
Party Name:Payne v. Tennessee
Case Date:June 27, 1991
Court:United States Supreme Court

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501 U.S. 808 (1991)

111 S.Ct. 2597, 115 L.Ed.2d 720, 59 U.S.L.W. 4814




No. 90-5721

United States Supreme Court

June 27, 1991

Argued April 24, 1991



Petitioner Payne was convicted by a Tennessee jury of the first-degree murders of Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter, and of first-degree assault upon, with intent to murder, Charisse's 3-year-old son Nicholas. The brutal crimes were committed in the victims' apartment after Charisse resisted Payne's sexual advances. During the sentencing phase of the trial, Payne called his parents, his girlfriend, and a clinical psychologist, each of whom testified as to various mitigating aspects of his background and character. The State called Nicholas' 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 Nicholas of his experience and on the effects of the crimes upon the victims' family. The jury sentenced Payne to death on each of the murder counts. The State Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting his contention that the admission of the grandmother's testimony and the State's closing argument violated his Eighth Amendment rights under Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, and South Carolina v. Gathers, 490 U.S. 805, which held that evidence and argument relating to the victim and the impact of the victim's death on the victim's family are per se inadmissible at a capital sentencing hearing.

Held: The Eighth Amendment erects no per se bar prohibiting a capital sentencing jury from considering "victim impact" evidence relating to the victim's personal characteristics and the emotional impact of the murder on the victim's family, or precluding a prosecutor from arguing such evidence at a [111 S.Ct. 2600] capital sentencing hearing. To the extent that this Court held to the contrary in Booth and Gathers, those.cases are overruled. Pp. 817-830.

(a) There are numerous infirmities in the rule created by Booth and Gathers. Those cases were based on two premises: that evidence relating to a particular victim or to the harm caused a victim's family does not, in general, reflect on the defendant's "blameworthiness," and that only evidence of "blameworthiness" is relevant to the capital sentencing decision. See Booth, supra at 504-505. However, assessment of the harm caused by the defendant has long been an important factor in determining the appropriate punishment, and victim impact evidence is simply another method of informing the sentencing authority about such harm. In excluding such evidence, the Court in Booth, supra at 504, misread

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the statement in Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 304, that the capital defendant must be treated as a "uniquely individual human bein[g]." As Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153,.203-204, demonstrates, the Woodson language was not intended to describe a class of evidence that could not be received, but a class of evidence that must be received, i.e., any relevant, nonprejudicial material, see Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880, 898. The Booth Court's misreading of precedent has unfairly weighted the scales in a capital trial. Virtually no limits are placed on the relevant mitigating evidence a capital defendant may introduce concerning his own circumstances. See, e.g., Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 114. The State has a legitimate interest in counteracting such evidence, but the Booth rule prevents it from doing so. Similarly, fairness to the prosecution requires rejection of Gathers' extension of the Booth rule to the prosecutor's argument, since, under the Eighth Amendment, this Court has given the capital defendant's attorney broad latitude to argue relevant mitigating evidence reflecting on his client's individual personality. The Court in Booth, supra at 506-507, also erred in reasoning that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a capital defendant to rebut victim impact evidence without shifting the focus of the sentencing hearing away from the defendant to the victim. The mere fact that, for tactical reasons, it might not be prudent for the defense to rebut such evidence makes the case no different from others in which a party is faced with this sort of dilemma. Nor is there merit to the concern voiced in Booth, supra at 506, that admission of such evidence permits a jury to find that defendants whose victims were assets to 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 this kind, but is designed to show instead each victim's uniqueness as an individual human being. In the event that victim impact evidence is introduced that is so unduly prejudicial that it renders the trial fundamentally unfair, the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause provides a mechanism for relief. See Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168, 179-183. Thus, 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 victim impact evidence. Pp. 817-827.

(b) Although adherence to the doctrine of stare decisis is usually the best policy, the doctrine is not an inexorable command. This Court has never felt constrained to follow precedent when governing decisions are unworkable or badly reasoned, Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 655, particularly in constitutional cases, where correction through legislative action is practically impossible, Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393, 407 (Brandeis, J., [111 S.Ct. 2601] dissenting), and in cases involving procedural

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and evidentiary rules. Booth and Gathers were decided by the narrowest of margins, over spirited dissents challenging their basic underpinnings; have been questioned by Members of this Court in later decisions; have defied consistent application by the lower courts, see, e.g., State v. Huertas, 51 Ohio St.3d 22, 33, 553 N.E.2d 1058, 1070; and, for the reasons heretofore stated, were wrongly decided. Pp. 827-830.

791 S.W.2d 10, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which WHITE and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, post, p. 830. SCALIA, J., filed a concurring opinion, in Part II of which O'CONNOR and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, post, p. 833. SOUTER, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which KENNEDY, J., joined, post, p. 835. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 844. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 856.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we reconsider our holdings in Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496 (1987), and South Carolina v. Gathers, 490 U.S. 805 (1989), that the Eighth Amendment bars the admission of victim impact evidence during the penalty phase of a capital trial.

Petitioner, Pervis Tyrone Payne, was convicted by a jury on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder in the first degree. He was sentenced to death for each of the murders and to 30 years in prison for the assault.

The victims of Payne's offenses were 28-year-old Charisse Christopher, her 2-year-old daughter Lacie, and her 3-year-old son Nicholas. The three lived together in an apartment in Millington, Tennessee, across the hall from Payne's girlfriend, Bobbie Thomas. On Saturday, June 27, 1987, Payne visited Thomas' apartment several times in expectation of her return from her mother's house in Arkansas, but found no one at home. On one visit, he left his overnight bag, containing

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clothes and other items for his weekend stay, in the hallway outside Thomas' apartment. With the bag were three cans of malt liquor.

Payne passed the morning and early afternoon injecting cocaine and drinking beer. Later, he drove around the town with a friend in the friend's car, each of them taking turns reading a pornographic magazine. Sometime around 3 p.m., Payne returned to the apartment complex, entered the Christophers' apartment, and began making sexual advances towards Charisse. Charisse resisted, and Payne became violent. A neighbor who resided in the apartment directly beneath the Christophers heard Charisse screaming, "`Get out, get out,' as if she were telling the children to leave." Brief for Respondent 3. The noise briefly subsided, and then began, "`horribly loud.'" Ibid. T he neighbor called the police after she heard a "blood curdling scream" from the Christophers' apartment. Ibid.

When the first police officer arrived at the scene, he immediately encountered Payne, who was leaving the apartment building, so covered with blood that he appeared to be "`sweating blood.'" The officer confronted Payne, who responded, "`I'm the complainant.'" Id. at 3-4. When the officer asked, "`What's going on up there?'", Payne struck the officer with the overnight bag, dropped [111 S.Ct. 2602] his tennis shoes, and fled. 791 S.W.2d 10, 12 (Tenn.1990).

Inside the apartment, the police encountered a horrifying scene. Blood covered the walls and floor throughout the unit. Charisse and her children were lying on the floor in the kitchen. Nicholas, despite several wounds inflicted by a butcher knife that completely penetrated through his body from front to back, was still breathing. Miraculously, he survived, but not until after undergoing seven hours of surgery and a transfusion of 1,700 cc's of blood -- 400 to 500 cc's more than his estimated normal blood volume. Charisse and Lacie were dead.

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Charisse's body was found on the kitchen floor on her back, her legs fully...

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