Tison v. Arizona

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation95 L.Ed.2d 127,481 U.S. 137,107 S.Ct. 1676
Docket NumberNo. 84-6075,84-6075
PartiesRicky Wayne TISON and Raymond Curtis Tison, Petitioners v. ARIZONA
Decision Date21 April 1987

Petitioner brothers, along with other members of their family, planned and effected the escape of their father from prison where he was serving a life sentence for having killed a guard during a previous escape. Petitioners entered the prison with a chest filled with guns, armed their father and another convicted murderer, later helped to abduct, detain, and rob a family of four, and watched their father and the other convict murder the members of that family with shotguns. Although they both later stated that they were surprised by the shooting, neither petitioner made any effort to help the victims, but drove away in the victims' car with the rest of the escape party. After the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed petitioners' individual convictions for capital murder under that State's felony-murder and accomplice-liability statutes, petitioners collaterally attacked their death sentences in state postconviction proceedings, alleging that Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 102 S.Ct. 3368, 73 L.Ed.2d 1140, which had been decided in the interim, required reversal. However, the State Supreme Court determined that they should be executed, holding that Enmund requires a finding of "intent to kill," and interpreting that phrase to include situations in which the defendant intended, contemplated, or anticipated that lethal force would or might be used, or that life would or might be taken in accomplishing the underlying felony. Despite finding that petitioners did not specifically intend that the victims die, plan the homicides in advance, or actually fire the shots, the court ruled that the requisite intent was established by evidence that petitioners played an active part in planning and executing the breakout and in the events that lead to the murders, and that they did nothing to interfere with the killings nor to disassociate themselves from the killers afterward. Although only one of the petitioners testified that he would have been willing to kill, the court found that both of them could have anticipated the use of lethal force.

Held: Although petitioners neither intended to kill the victims nor inflicted the fatal wounds, the record might support a finding that they had the culpable mental state of reckless indifference to human life. The Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty as disproportionate in the case of a defendant whose participation in a felony that results in murder is major and whose mental state is one of reckless indifference. A survey of state felony murder laws and judicial decisions after Enmund indicates a societal consensus that that combination of factors may justify the death penalty even without a specific "intent to kill." Reckless disregard for human life also represents a highly culpable mental state that may support a capital sentencing judgment in combination with major participation in the felony resulting in death. Because the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed these death sentences upon a finding that the defendants "intended, contemplated, or anticipated that lethal force would or might be used or that life would or might be taken," the case must be remanded. Pp. 146-1158.

142 Ariz. 446, 690 P.2d 747, and 142 Ariz. 454, 690 P.2d 755, vacated and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, and in Parts I, II, III, and IV-A of which BLACKMUN and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 159.

Alan M. Dershowitz, Cambridge, Mass., for petitioners.

William J. Schafer, III, Phoenix, Ariz., for respondent.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether the petitioners' participation in the events leading up to and following the murder of four members of a family makes the sentences of death imposed by the Arizona courts constitutionally permissible although neither petitioner specifically intended to kill the victims and neither inflicted the fatal gunshot wounds. We hold that the Arizona Supreme Court applied an erroneous standard in making the findings required by Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 102 S.Ct. 3368, 73 L.Ed.2d 1140 (1982), and, therefore, vacate the judgments below and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.


Gary Tison was sentenced to life imprisonment as the result of a prison escape during the course of which he had killed a guard. After he had been in prison a number of years, Gary Tison's wife, their three sons Donald, Ricky, and Raymond, Gary's brother Joseph, and other relatives made plans to help Gary Tison escape again. See State v. Dorothy Tison, Cr. No. 108352 (Super.Ct. Maricopa County 1981). The Tison family assembled a large arsenal of weapons for this purpose. Plans for escape were discussed with Gary Tison, who insisted that his cellmate, Randy Greenawalt, also a convicted murderer, be included in the prison break. The following facts are largely evidenced by petitioners' detailed confessions given as part of a plea bargain according to the terms of which the State agreed not to seek the death sentence. The Arizona courts interpreted the plea agreement to require that petitioners testify to the planning stages of the breakout. When they refused to do so, the bargain was rescinded and they were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

On July 30, 1978, the three Tison brothers entered the Arizona State Prison at Florence carrying a large ice chest filled with guns. The Tisons armed Greenawalt and their father, and the group, brandishing their weapons, locked the prison guards and visitors present in a storage closet. The five men fled the prison grounds in the Tisons' Ford Galaxy automobile. No shots were fired at the prison.

After leaving the prison, the men abandoned the Ford automobile and proceeded on to an isolated house in a white Lincoln automobile that the brothers had parked at a hospital near the prison. At the house, the Lincoln automobile had a flat tire; the only spare tire was pressed into service. After two nights at the house, the group drove toward Flagstaff. As the group traveled on back roads and secondary highways through the desert, another tire blew out. The group de- cided to flag down a passing motorist and steal a car. Raymond stood out in front of the Lincoln; the other four armed themselves and lay in wait by the side of the road. One car passed by without stopping, but a second car, a Mazda occupied by John Lyons, his wife Donnelda, his 2-year-old son Christopher, and his 15-year-old niece, Theresa Tyson, pulled over to render aid.

As Raymond showed John Lyons the flat tire on the Lincoln, the other Tisons and Greenawalt emerged. The Lyons family was forced into the backseat of the Lincoln. Raymond and Donald drove the Lincoln down a dirt road off the highway and then down a gas line service road farther into the desert; Gary Tison, Ricky Tison, and Randy Greenawalt followed in the Lyons' Mazda. The two cars were parked trunk to trunk and the Lyons family was ordered to stand in front of the Lincoln's headlights. The Tisons transferred their belongings from the Lincoln into the Mazda. They discovered guns and money in the Mazda which they kept, and they put the rest of the Lyons' possessions in the Lincoln.

Gary Tison then told Raymond to drive the Lincoln still farther into the desert. Raymond did so, and, while the others guarded the Lyons and Theresa Tyson, Gary fired his shotgun into the radiator, presumably to completely disable the vehicle. The Lyons and Theresa Tyson were then escorted to the Lincoln and again ordered to stand in its headlights. Ricky Tison reported that John Lyons begged, in comments "more or less directed at everybody," "Jesus, don't kill me." Gary Tison said he was "thinking about it." App. 39, 108. John Lyons asked the Tisons and Greenawalt to "[g]ive us some water . . . just leave us out here, and you all go home." Gary Tison then told his sons to go back to the Mazda and get some water. Raymond later explained that his father "was like in conflict with himself. . . . What it was, I think it was the baby being there and all this, and he wasn't sure about what to do." Id., at 20-21, 74.

The petitioners' statements diverge to some extent, but it appears that both of them went back towards the Mazda, along with Donald, while Randy Greenawalt and Gary Tison stayed at the Lincoln guarding the victims. Raymond recalled being at the Mazda filling the water jug "when we started hearing the shots." Id., at 21. Ricky said that the brothers gave the water jug to Gary Tison who then, with Randy Greenawalt went behind the Lincoln, where they spoke briefly, then raised the shotguns and started firing. Id., at 41, 111. In any event, petitioners agree they saw Greenawalt and their father brutally murder their four captives with repeated blasts from their shotguns. Neither made an effort to help the victims, though both later stated they were surprised by the shooting. The Tisons got into the Mazda and drove away, continuing their flight. Physical evidence suggested that Theresa Tyson managed to crawl away from the bloodbath, severely injured. She died in the desert after the Tisons left.

Several days later the Tisons and Greenawalt were apprehended after a shootout at a police roadblock. Donald Tison was killed. Gary Tison escaped into the desert where he subsequently died of exposure. Raymond and Ricky Tison and Randy Greenawalt were captured and tried jointly for the crimes associated with the prison break itself and the shootout at the roadblock; each was convicted and sentenced.


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