After Pervis Payne was convicted in the 1987 double murder of Chrisse Christopher and her daughter, Lacie, the judge allowed Christopher’s mother, Mary Zvolanek, to tell the sentencing jury about the emotional impact of the crime on the victim’s family. Zvolanek described how her grandson, Nicholas, had been affected by the murders of his mother and sister:
He cries for his mom. He doesn’t seem to understand why she doesn’t come home. And he cries for his sister, Lacie. He comes to me many times during the week and asks me, “Grandmama, do you miss my Lacie.” And I tell him, “Yes.” He says, “I’m worried about my Lacie.”
The jury sentenced Payne to death.
In a 5-to-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Payne v. Tennessee that victim-impact statements delivered by crime victims’ family members are admissible at capital sentencing hearings, reversing its own decision of just two years earlier in Booth v. Maryland. The Booth decision had barred the statements, viewing them as emotionally charged testimony that would divert the jury’s attention from the defendant’s responsibility for the crime and focus it on the character and identity of the victim. The Payne decision not only dismissed this concern; it found that the statements were valuable precisely because they remind sentencing juries and judges “that the victim is an individual whose death represents a unique loss to society and in particular to his family.” It rejected the argument that the statements would influence sentencing based on irrelevant factors, such as the victim’s attractiveness, respectability, social class, or race.