EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, December 18, 2008

To The Payne: Supreme Court Of Idaho Vacates Death Sentence Based Upon Improper Victim Impact Statements

Last month, I posted an entry lamenting the United States Supreme Court's refusal to grant cert in two victim impact statement appeals.  One of those impact statements can be found on the Supreme Court's website, and, as you can see, it not only contains images of the victim and statements concerning the effect of her death on her family, but also Enya music and a clip of wild horses running free.

The basis for my displeasure was that in Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991), the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment does not place a per se bar on admitting victim impact statements in the sentencing phase of capital murder trials, but also held that:

     "[i]f, in a particular case, a witness' testimony or a prosecutor's remark so infects the sentencing proceeding as to render it fundamentally unfair, the defendant may seek appropriate relief under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."   

The basis for my displeasure was that, as Justice Stevens mused in dissent,

     "At the very least, the petitions now before us invite the Court to apply the standard announced in Payne, and to provide the lower courts with long-overdue guidance on the scope of admissible victim impact evidence.  Having decided to tolerate the introduction of evidence that puts a heavy thumb on the prosecutor's side of the scale in death cases, the Court has a duty to consider what reasonable limits should be placed on its use."

Well, even without that guidance, the Supreme Court of Idaho in State v. Payne, 2008 WL 5205959 (Idaho 2008), was recently able to determine that victim impact statements rendered a defendant's sentencing proceeding fundamentally unfair and thus vacated his death sentence and remanded for resentencing.

In Payne, a district court sentenced Darrell Edward Payne to death for the murder of Samantha Maher after a jury found him guilty of kidnapping, raping, robbing, and murdering her.  Payne subsequently appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the admission of "inflammatoryā€¯ and inadmissible victim impact statements violated his constitutional rights.

These victim impact statements included:

     "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. Additionally, numerous family members and friends testified at the sentencing hearing and gave their opinions about Payne, his character and the crime. During the full day of victim impact testimony, 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. Witnesses also expressed their wishes that Payne 'rot in hell,' 'burn in hell' or be tortured." 

Moreover, "[o]ne witness noted Bible passages he wished the court to consider; each passage called for death for a certain crime."  Specifically,

     "[t]his witness stated: 'As in the Good Book there's some scripture numbers I'd like to put into the record but I will not read them. Numbers 35:16, Deuteronomy 24:7, and the two special young women [Payne raped in Barber Park, Deuteronomy] 22:25.' 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.' 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.'"

And while the United States Supreme Court has not set forth clear guidance on what can be included in victim impact statements, the state of Idaho has.  According to I.C. Section 19-2515(5)(a),

     "Information concerning the victim and the impact that the death of the victim has had on the victim's family is relevant and admissible. Such information shall be designed to demonstrate the victim's uniqueness as an individual human being and the resultant loss to the community by the victim's death. Characterizations and opinions about the crime, the defendant and the appropriate sentence shall not be permitted as part of any victim impact information."

Applying this standard to the above statements, the Idaho Supremes concluded that "[t]hese statements [we]re characterizations and opinions about Payne, the crime, his appropriate punishment, and calls to religious authority as the basis for punishment; as such, none of these statements were admissible."  It then vacated Payne's sentence and remanded for resentencing because there was "a reasonable doubt as to whether the evidence contributed to Payne's sentence."  And looking at the facts of Payne's case, I don't see how the court could have ruled any other way.



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