Tison v. Arizona,
481 U.S. 137 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137 (1987)

Tison v. Arizona

No. 84-6075

Argued November 3, 1986

Decided April 21, 1987*

481 U.S. 137


Petitioner brothers, along with other members of their family, planned and effected the escape of their father from prison, where he was serving a life sentence for having killed a guard during a previous escape. Petitioners entered the prison with a chest filled with guns, armed their father and another convicted murderer, later helped to abduct, detain, and rob a family of four, and watched their father and the other convict murder the members of that family with shotguns. Although they both later stated that they were surprised by the shooting, neither petitioner made any effort to help the victims, but drove away in the victims' car with the rest of the escape party. After the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed petitioners' individual convictions for capital murder under that State's felony murder and accomplice liability statutes, petitioners collaterally attacked their death sentences in state postconviction proceedings, alleging that Enmund v. Florida, 458 U. S. 782, which had been decided in the interim, required reversal. However, the State Supreme Court determined that they should be executed, holding that Enmund requires a finding of "intent to kill," and interpreting that phrase to include situations in which the defendant intended, contemplated, or anticipated that lethal force would or might be used, or that life would or might be taken in accomplishing the underlying felony. Despite finding that petitioners did not specifically intend that the victims die, plan the homicides in advance, or actually fire the shots, the court ruled that the requisite intent was established by evidence that petitioners played an active part in planning and executing the breakout and in the events that lead to the murders, and that they did nothing to interfere with the killings nor to disassociate themselves from the killers afterward. Although only one of the petitioners testified that he would have been willing to kill, the court found that both of them could have anticipated the use of lethal force.

Held: Although petitioners neither intended to kill the victims nor inflicted the fatal wounds, the record might support a finding that they had the culpable mental state of reckless indifference to human life. The Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty as disproportionate in

Page 481 U. S. 138

the case of a defendant whose participation in a felony that results in murder is major and whose mental state is one of reckless indifference. A survey of state felony murder laws and judicial decisions after Enmund indicates a societal consensus that that combination of factors may justify the death penalty even without a specific "intent to kill." Reckless disregard for human life also represents a highly culpable mental state that may support a capital sentencing judgment in combination with major participation in the felony resulting in death. Because the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed these death sentences upon a finding that the defendants "intended, contemplated, or anticipated that lethal force would or might be used, or that life would or might be taken," the case must be remanded. Pp. 481 U. S. 146-168.

142 Ariz. 446, 690 P.2d 147, and 142 Ariz. 454, 690 P.2d 766, vacated and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, and in Parts I, II, III, and IV-A of which BLACKMUN and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 481 U. S. 169.

Primary Holding

The felony murder rule can support the application of the death penalty for a defendant who did not intend to cause the death, if he or she was a key actor in the underlying crime and showed reckless indifference to human life.


Two brothers, Rick and Raymond Tison, coordinated a plan to help their father escape from prison. They carried a supply of guns into the prison and then escaped. When their car broke down on a highway, they stopped a passing car. One of their co-felons shot the occupants of the car, to which the brothers did not object. They were later convicted of first-degree felony murder, since the deaths of the people in the car were considered by the state courts to have been foreseeable results of their conduct.



  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • Antonin Scalia

Even though the brothers had no intent to kill, they created a serious danger to human life. The felony murder rule is designed to deter people from engaging in this dangerous type of conduct, so convicting them serves its purpose. Very few states have an intent requirement in the felony murder rule, which suggests that society in general does not support it. The defendants were not peripheral actors in the crime, since they had played a key role in instigating it.


  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • John Paul Stevens

Case Commentary

There is still some blurriness regarding when the felony murder rule should apply, but it depends on how actively a defendant participated in the events leading to the death. It also may be influenced by whether the defendant is a member of a special group, such as a child or a mentally ill person. A similar case involving a juvenile brought the Court to a different conclusion.

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