Payne v. Tennessee

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Payne v. Tennessee
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued April 24, 1991
Decided June 27, 1991
Full case name Pervis Tyrone Payne v. Tennessee
Citations 501 U.S. 808 (more)
111 S.Ct. 2597; 115 L.Ed.2d 720
Prior history Certiorari to the Supreme Court of Tennessee
The admission of a victim impact statement does not violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Rehnquist, joined by White, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter
Concurrence O'Connor, joined by White, Kennedy
Concurrence Scalia, joined by O'Connor, Kennedy
Concurrence Souter, joined by Kennedy
Dissent Marshall, joined by Blackmun
Dissent Stevens, joined by Blackmun
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. VIII
This case overturned a previous ruling or rulings
Booth v. Maryland (1987)
South Carolina v. Gathers (1989)

Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991), was a United States Supreme Court case which held that testimony in the form of a victim impact statement is admissible during the sentencing phase of a trial and, in death penalty cases, does not violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. Payne overruled two of the Courts' precedents: Booth v. Maryland (1987) and South Carolina v. Gathers (1989).


Pervis Tyrone Payne was the defendant in this trial prosecuted in Tennessee. On Saturday, June 27, 1987, he attempted to rape an acquaintance of his, Charisse Christopher, and finally he murdered her and her two-year-old daughter, Lacie. Neighbors heard noises and yelling, and called the police. Upon arriving, a police officer "immediately encountered Payne who was leaving the apartment building, so covered in blood that he appeared to be 'sweating blood'".

The police found "a horrifying scene." Forty-two stab wounds were on Charisse's body, and Lacie and Nicholas, Charisse's son, had suffered stab wounds as well. Payne fled to his girlfriend's house, and discarded his clothes, which were soaked in blood. Meanwhile, Nicholas Christopher held in his intestines while the emergency medical technicians transported him to the emergency room. There was significant physical evidence implicating the defendant: Payne's fingerprints on cans of malt liquor, the victims' blood soaked into his clothes, and his property left at the scene of the crime.

Dozens of witnesses, including the police, friends, the neighbors, and experts, testified at the trial. The evidence that he perpetrated the attacks was "overwhelming," according to Chief Justice Rehnquist. Payne denied the charges, claiming he came upon the bloody victims. The district attorney stressed, in his closing arguments, the senselessness of the killings, the violence displayed by the defendant, and the innocence of the victims. The jury convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder and a related charge.

At the sentencing phase, the judge allowed both the public defender to adduce mitigating testimony from the defendant's friends and family, and the district attorney (DA) to introduce evidence from the grandmother/mother of the victims. Payne appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, and then asked for a writ of certiorari from the United States Supreme Court. Certiorari was granted, with the Court noting that it would have to reconsider its past precedent. The case was argued on April 24, 1991 and decided on June 27, 1991.[1]

Opinion of the Court[edit]

The Court held that testimony on the form of a victim impact statement was admissible and constitutional in death penalty cases, thus expressly overruling two prior cases, Booth v. Maryland (1987) and South Carolina v. Gathers (1989).

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Rehnquist provided a number of reasons for the decision:

  1. The sentencer has the right to consider all relevant evidence, within the rules of evidence.
  2. The principle that the punishment should fit the crime is relevant here, and this was a particularly aggravated and savage murder.
  3. Stare decisis is "not an inexorable command", and the Supreme Court, since Marbury v. Madison (1803), has decided what the law is.
  4. Because the defendant has the right to present mitigating evidence at the sentencing phase, the prosecution should be able to present aggravating evidence about the victim (Justice Stevens, in dissent, characterizes this argument as a non sequitur: the defendant has constitutional rights because he is on trial - the victim is not on trial and has no constitutional rights in the proceeding).
  5. The trial was fair in all respects, and mitigating evidence ought to be presented with damaging evidence when available.

Justices Stevens and Marshall wrote dissenting opinions, with Justice Blackmun joining each of them.[2]


Payne has had a significant, ongoing impact in victim's rights, criminology, and the lives of the parties involved.

The case allowed victim impact statements in U.S. courts, and the overwhelming majority of states now allow such use in the sentencing phase of trials, and was a significant development in the victims' rights movement.[2][3][4][5][6] One scholar recently wrote:

Among the most significant products of the Victim's Rights Movement over the past decade has been the revival of the use of victim impact evidence—evidence relating to the victim's personal characteristics and the emotional impact of the crime on others--during capital sentencing. With its decision in Payne v. Tennessee (1991), the US Supreme Court not only reversed its own recent precedent holding such evidence to be unconstitutional, it left only a vague and malleable standard for limiting its admissibility.

— Joel F. Donahue [6]

Another scholar calls the verdict in Payne an example of "symbolic violence."[7] It was pointed out that:

Rehnquist's reliance on this image of the perpetrator as a rabid animal that is foaming at the mouth helps to justify the violence of Payne's death sentence while it also obscures that violence. The majority opinion in Payne, like the prosecutor's arguments before the jury, hinges on contrasting little Nicholas to Pervis Payne, juxtaposing Nicholas's smallness and vulnerability to Payne's murderous and inhuman power. The smaller and more innocent the victim, the stronger and more guilty the defendant appears.

— Jennifer K. Wood [7]

The case was one in a line of cases that showed how the Rehnquist Court shifted to the conservative or "right" on criminal cases.[3] The case is cited by at least one major college text book as a "capstone case."[8]

Payne's execution was stayed in April 2007,[9] and after protracted litigation,[10][11] again scheduled in December 2007,[12] and stayed again that month.[13][14][15][16] He remains on death row as of June 2016.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Facts are re-worded from the decision, q.v., Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  2. ^ a b "Victims of Crime - Victims' Rights" on Library Index website. Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  3. ^ a b AP, "Excerpts from Rehnquist opinions: Chief justice oversaw conservative shift in court during tenure," September 4, 2005, found at website. Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  4. ^ Case Brief at Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  5. ^ Myers, Linda (2002-02-28). "Forum examines effect of victim impact statements on death penalty verdicts". Cornell News. Retrieved 2008-09-22. 
  6. ^ a b Donahoe, Joel F. (1999). "The Changing Role of Victim Impact Evidence in Capital Cases". Western Criminology Review. 2 (1). Retrieved 2008-09-22. 
  7. ^ a b Wood, Jennifer K, "Refined raw: The symbolic violence of victims' rights reforms," College Literature, Winter 1999, found at BNet Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  8. ^ Schmalleger, Frank (2006). Criminal Law Today: An Introduction with Capstone Cases (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson. pp. 34–42. ISBN 0-13-170287-4. 
  9. ^ Pro death Penalty website. Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  10. ^ In re Pervis T. Payne (2007), list found at Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts government website. Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  11. ^ Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing website. Retrieved September 22, 2008.[dead link]
  12. ^ Tneesse Corrections Department website. Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  13. ^ Life on Death Row website. Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  14. ^ Capital Defense Weekly website. Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  15. ^ Payne v. Bredesen, No. 3-07-0714 (U.S.D.S. M.D. Tenn. 2007), found at US District Court, Middle District of Tennessee government website. Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  16. ^ Jared Allen, "Stay granted for Dec. 12 execution", Nashville City Paper, December 7, 2007, found at Nashville City Paper website. Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  17. ^ Tennessee Department of Corrections government website. Retrieved September 22, 2008.

External links[edit]