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PAYNE V. TENNESSEE This research paper summariz

This research paper summarizes and analyzes the constitutionality, chief significance and contemporary relevance of admitting into evidence victim impact statements (VISs) in sentencing hearings in capital cases, as revealed in Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 508 (1991), and other federal and state cases.

By the mid-1980s, most state courts and federal courts as a result of legislation sponsored by the victims' rights movement, allowed or mandated that VISs be admitted into evidence at capital crime sentencing hearings. In Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496 (1987), the Supreme Court ruled five to four that such use of VISs constituted a per se violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In South Carolina v. Gathers, 490 U.S. 805 (1989), the Court extended that ban to comments by prosecutors thereon. Only two years later, in Payne, the Court by a six to three margin reversed itself. This volte face reflected the increasingly conservative composition of the Court and its willingness to allow federal and state juries greater latitude in capital sentencing cases. Since Payne, the widespread use of VISs in such proceedings has narrowed the constitutional rights of the accused in capital cases and facilitated the imposition of the death penalty. Sound public policy considerations suggest that legislative and/or judicial safeguards be adopted to prevent the indiscriminate use of VISs in capital cases.

Victim rights movement. According to Elkenberry, "in the middle ages, victims [of crimes] engaged in primitive blood feuds with their criminal offenders" (21). As, however, Anglo-American jurisprudence evolved, the state assumed from private parties the entire burden of prosecution. Philips said "the . . . criminal justice system [became] no longer based on the victim's need for vengeance, but rather on society's need to deter and control crime" (114). According to Shanker, the victims' rights movement, which firs...

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