Tison v. Arizona

481 U. S. 137

April 21, 1987

Raymond and Ricky Tison armed their father Gary, and helped him escape from prison. He was serving time for killing a guard during a previous prison escape. While driving on a remote highway afterward, a tire in their escape car blew out. They flagged down another car, and the family of four was ordered out at gunpoint. As Raymond and Ricky looked on, Gary murdered the entire family. The fugitives got in the stolen car and continued on for several days before being caught. Raymond and Ricky were sentenced to death as accomplices to murder. They argued that they had not intended to see the family murdered, and that a 1982 case called Enmund prevented death sentences for those who did not kill.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that defendants could be sentenced to death if they had major participation in a felony that ended in homicide, and they had a reckless indifference to human life during the course of this participation. O’Connor, writing for the majority, distinguished the Enmund case, where the defendant had merely been the getaway driver when an armed robbery unexpectedly escalated into a murder inside a house. Here, the Tison brothers armed a man who they knew had previously committed murder, they actively participated in the kidnapping and theft of the car, and they were present when the murders occurred. O’Connor also showed that most states which retained capital punishment allowed for its imposition in felony-murder cases, and that is was not disproportionate to execute those who displayed a callous indifference to human life.

Brennan dissented, and was joined by Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens. He placed great significance on the fact that Raymond and Ricky were told, and apparently believed, that no one would be hurt in the scheme to get their father out of prison. He also stressed that they had not actually killed anyone, and thus ought not be held to the high degree of culpability required for the imposition of a death sentence. Brennan also disputed O’Connor’s empirical analysis, finding that few states would actually allow the Tison brothers to be sentenced to death, and that in practice accomplices in felony-murder cases almost never were. This rarity led him to conclude that the punishment was disproportionate.

Reading Brennan’s opinion, it’s blatantly obvious that, even apart from any legal considerations, none of the four dissenters believed that the Tison brothers deserved to die. And therein lies the reason why I could not join it. Scripture could not be more clear – “the wages of sin is death.” God put Ananias and Sapphira to death for the sins of lying and selfishness. To say that they did not deserve death would be to accuse God of injustice. Can there be any argument then that the Tison brother did not deserve death as well? A nation that would find the death penalty ‘cruel and unusual’ for Raymond and Ricky is a nation that has completely lost all concept of what sin truly means.

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One thought on “Tison v. Arizona

  1. Pingback: 1986-1987: Conservative Victories | Vintage Bracketology

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