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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sentence Falls, Idaho: Supreme Court of Idaho Vacates Death Sentence After Religious And Character Attacks Against Defendant During Victim Impact Statements

In State v. Payne, 2008 WL 2447447 (Idaho 2008), Darrell Payne was convicted of first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, robbery and rape, and sentenced to death, all in connection with acts that he allegedly committed against Samantha Maher.  His appeal of his convictions eventually reached the Supreme Court of Idaho, which affirmed Payne's convictions but vacated his sentence in an opinion that nicely details what can't be included in victim impact statements in capital cases.

Let's skip the evidence of Payne's guilt and move right to the substance of the victim impact statements presented at Payne's sentencing hearing.  The prosecution introduced into evidence "an excessive number of letters from family members and friends, many of which stated the author's opinions about Payne, his character and the crime."  Many of these individuals also testified at the hearing "and gave their opinions about Payne, his character and the crime."  Specifically, witnesses described Payne as "evil, a waste of aspirin, a sociopath, a cold-blooded killer, unremorseful, a predator, cold and calculating, not a man, not even human, selfish, a coward, a pathetic monster, a wimp and a man without a conscience."

Some witnesses also expressed their wishes that Payne "rot in hell," "burn in hell" or "be tortured.". One witness noted Bible passages he wished the court to consider, with each passage calling for death for a certain crime.  This witness testified that:

     -Numbers 35:16 states, "'If a man strikes someone with an iron object so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death;"

     -Deuteronomy 24:7 states, "If a man is caught kidnapping one of his brother Israelites and treats him as a slave or sells him, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you;" and 

     -Deuteronomy 22:25 states, "But if out in the country a man happens to meet a girl pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die."

The Idaho Supreme Court found that all of these letters and testimony were improperly admitted.  As support for this conclusion, the court noted that pursuant to precedent from both the United States and Idaho Supreme Courts, while "evidence relating to the victim's personal characteristics and the impact of the crime on the murder victim's family is admissible, characterizations and opinions about the crime, the defendant and the appropriate sentence are not admissible." See Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 830 n.2 (1991); State v. Lovelace, 90 P.3d 298, 305 (Idaho 2004).  The Court further found that "references to or arguments using religious authority as the basis for punishment is improper and have been condemned by virtually every court to consider their use." See Sandoval v. Calderon, 241 F.3d 765, 766-67 (9th Cir. 2000).  The court found this to be he case "because the death penalty may only be imposed when the fact finder carefully focuses on the specific statutory factors and because reference to religious authority undermines the fact finder's role and sense of responsibility in sentencing a defendant to death."

The court then concluded that the admission of this evidence was not harmless error and accordingly vacated Payne's death sentence and remanded for resentencing before a different judge.  It is a decision with which I agree in that it seems in line with precedent from across the country and also seems to cohere with the notion that justice should be based upon the facts rather than emotional or spiritual appeals.

-CM

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