Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808; 111 S. Ct. 2597; 115 L. Ed. 2d 760 (1991)

Facts—In Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496 (1987) and South Carolina v. Gathers, 490 U.S. 804 (1989), the Supreme Court barred the use of victimimpact evidence during the penalty phase of a capital trial. Nonetheless, in this case, a Tennessee trial court, affirmed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, upheld the use of a grandmother’s testimony as to the effect that the murder of her twenty-eight-year-old daughter and her two-year-old granddaughter had on her three-year-old grandson who survived the brutal stabbings that took the lives of his mother and sister.

Question—Do the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit all use of victim-impact statements at the sentencing phases of capital offenses?


ReasonsC.J. Rehnquist (6–3). The Court viewed the use of the grandmother’s statements in this case as essentially balancing the positive testimony about Payne and his character that was introduced in Court when it was considering the death penalty. Rehnquist contended that the Court’s earlier decisions essentially excluding any evidence other than the “blameworthiness” of the offender unduly limited information that should be available to the jury. The Court had continually widened considerations of mitigating evidence in such cases, and consideration of such evidence without also weighing the impact of the crime “unfairly weighted the scales in a capital trial; while virtually no limits are placed on the relevant mitigating evidence a capital defendant may introduce concerning his own circumstances, the State is barred from either offering ‘a quick glimpse of the life’ which a defendant ‘chose to extinguish,’ . . . or demonstrating the loss to the victim’s family and to society which has resulted from the defendant’s homicide.” In this case, Payne’s family and friends testified to his good character, and the victim’s grandmother made a single statement as to the harm her grandson had suffered. Although adherence to precedent is important, it has less force in matters involving “procedural and evidentiary rules” than in cases “involving property and contract rights, where reliance interests are involved.”

In concurrence, J. O’Connor noted that, while allowing the use of victim impact statements, this decision did not require or even recommend that states utilize them. J. Scalia’s concurrence cited a precedent to argue that stare decisis should not lead to “an imprisonment of reason.” J. Souter viewed the information in the victim-impact statement as “revealing the individuality of the victim and the impact of the crime on the victim’s survivors.”

J. Marshall’s dissent claimed that “Power, not reason, is the new currency of this Court’s decision making” and feared that this overturning of precedent portended still others. J. Stevens’s dissent expressed the fear that the decision opened the door to irrelevant appeals “to the sympathies or emotions of the jurors” that would lead to inconsistent sentencing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Law Faculty
error: Content is protected !!