Payne v. Tennessee

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Payne v. Tennessee by William Rehnquist
Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

501 U.S. 808

Payne  v.  Tennessee

No. 90-5721  Argued: April 24, 1991. --- Decided: June 27, 1991

See U.S., 112 S.ct. 28.


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, 107 S.Ct. 2529, 96 L.Ed.2d 440, and South Carolina v. Gathers, 490 U.S. 805, 109 S.Ct. 2207, 104 L.Ed.2d 876, 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 capital sentencing hearing. To the extent that they held to the contrary, Booth and Gathers 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, 107 S.Ct., at 2533-2534. 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, Booth, supra, at 504, 107 S.Ct., at 2533-34, misread the statement in Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 304, 96 S.Ct. 2978, 2991, 49 L.Ed.2d 944, that the capital defendant must be treated as a "uniquely individual human bein[g]." As Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 203-204, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 2939, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 demonstrates, the Woodson language was not intended to describe a class of evidence that could not be received, but a class of evidence which must be received, i.e., any relevant, nonprejudicial material, see Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880, 898, 103 S.Ct. 3383, 3397, 77 L.Ed.2d 1090. Booth § 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, 102 S.Ct. 869, 877, 71 L.Ed.2d 1. 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. Booth, supra, 482 U.S., at 506-507, 107 S.Ct., at 2534-2535, 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, 107 S.Ct., at 2534-2535, 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, 106 S.Ct. 2464, 2470-2472, 91 L.Ed.2d 144. 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, 64 S.Ct. 757, 760-761, 88 L.Ed. 987 particularly in constitutional cases, where correction through legislative action is practically impossible, Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393, 407, 52 S.Ct. 443, 447, 76 L.Ed. 815 (Brandeis, J., dissenting), and in cases involving procedural 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 (Tenn.1990), 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. SCALIA, J., filed a concurring opinion, in Part II of which O'CONNOR and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SOUTER, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which KENNEDY, J., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined.

J. Brooke Lathram, Memphis, Tenn., for petitioner.

Charles W. Burson, Nashville, Tenn., for respondent.

Attorney Gen. Dick Thornburgh, Washington, D.C., for the U.S., as amicus curiae, supporting respondent, by special leave of Court.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).