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Law School Case Brief

Tison v. Arizona - 481 U.S. 137, 107 S. Ct. 1676 (1987)


Major participation in the felony committed, combined with reckless indifference to human life, is sufficient to satisfy the culpability requirement.


A prisoner, Gary Tison, who had been convicted of murdering a guard during a previous escape attempt, was aided in a second attempt by members of his family, including two of his sons, who smuggled guns into the prison and helped the prisoner and his cellmate, also a convicted murderer, to overpower their guards. After the getaway car developed a flat tire, the group decided to stop and steal a passing car, and one of the sons flagged down some passing motorists, who were then held by the group at gunpoint, robbed of their valuables, and taken out into the desert with both cars. While the sons fetched some water for their captives from the second car, the prisoner and his cellmate, who were holding the captives by the adjacent first car, fatally shot the captives. Neither of the sons made any effort to aid the victims, though they later claimed to have been surprised by the shootings; Tison's sons continued to participate in the escape effort, which later ended in a shootout with police. In Arizona state court proceedings based on Arizona's felony-murder and accomplice-liability laws, the two sons were convicted of murder and sentenced to death for the killing of the motorists. The Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed the death sentences, holding that, notwithstanding the fact that the sons had not specifically intended that the motorists be killed nor actually done the killing, those were of little significance in view of the fact that they had associated themselves with known killers and were palpably indifferent to the consequences of their actions. Denying the sons' petitions for post-conviction relief, the Supreme Court of Arizona (1) described the intervening decision in Enmund v Florida (1982) 458 U.S. 782, 73 L.Ed. 2d 1140, 102 S.Ct. 3368, as holding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits imposition of the death penalty absent a showing that the defendant killed, attempted to kill, or intended to kill, but (2) ruled that "intent" to kill was shown in this case because the sons had anticipated that lethal force might be used in accomplishing the underlying felony. The sons petitioned for further review in the United States Supreme Court.


Did the Supreme Court of Arizona apply an erroneous standard to reach its holding imposing the death penalty against petitioners when the court found that petitioners intended to kill four members of a family even though neither petitioner pulled a trigger?




The Court found that the state supreme court applied an erroneous standard to reach its holding. The Court found the state supreme court tried to include the element of foreseeability in the "intent to kill" when it found that the prisoner, the petitioners' father, intended to kill the victims. The Court concluded that petitioners did not fall within the "intent to kill" category. Therefore, the Court found the death sentence to be disproportionate to the crime of armed robbery committed by petitioners. The Court vacated the lower court's decision and remanded the case.

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