Degree of father’s culpability at heart of capital trial
It isn’t a matter of whether Christopher Mathew Payne is guilty in the deaths of two of his children, it’s how much of that guilt is his.
Deputy County Attorney Susan Eazer told jurors in her closing argument Monday to hold Payne, 30, fully accountable for the abuse and deaths of his 3-year-old daughter, Ariana, and 4-year-old son, Tyler.
Payne is guilty “as sure as if he picked up a gun and shot them,” Eazer said.
Assistant Public Defender John O’Brien said Payne is no more guilty than his former girlfriend, Reina Irene Gonzales, 24, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and will be sentenced in Pima County Superior Court on April 20 to 22 years in prison in exchange for her testimony.
“She was an evil woman who bore malice toward the two children and she acted on that malice and to save herself,” O’Brien said.
Payne is charged with two counts each of first-degree murder, child abuse and concealing or abandoning a body. If he’s convicted of first-degree murder, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Prosecutors say Payne kept custody of Ariana and Tyler, despite a court order granting custody to their mother with no visitation for him, in January 2006 because he resented paying child support and was behind by more than $19,000.
“The final weeks of their young lives were spend in a 5-by-6 dark closet, battered, broken and starving to death,” she said.
“Their final resting place,” Eazer said, hauling out a blue storage tub similar to the one Ariana’s remains were found in, “was a 25-gallon plastic tub.”
According to testimony from their mother and grandparents, the children were “happy, healthy and well-cared for” when they were with their mother, Jamie Hallam, Eazer said.
Testimony points to the time after Payne lost his job with a transportation company in April 2006 as the “turning point” when the children’s lives were doomed, Eazer said.
Payne and Gonzales began getting high every day and Payne began dealing drugs, Eazer said.
Once Ariana succumbed to starvation, Payne put the “lifeless, cold body of his daughter back in the closet with his son, who was still alive and he went out to get high.”
Tyler died about a week later, testimony showed.
Defense claims that 12 of Ariana’s ribs and a shoulder bone were broken before she came to live with Payne contradict testimony and common sense, Eazer said.
Payne’s five-hour statement to police after he was arrested shows that he blames everyone but himself for his woes, Eazer said. His reason for not getting help for the children was likewise as selfish: he knew he’d get in trouble, Eazer said.
When detectives asked Payne if he was in control, Eazer noted, “his reply was, ‘Always.’ ”
“He sat back and he let those children slowly and painfully starve to death,” Eazer said.
“There is no evidence that Christopher Payne premeditated the deaths of his children,” defense attorney O’Brien said in his closing argument.
“He wasn’t there,” O’Brien said.
Payne was arrested March 1, 2006, after Ariana’s decomposed remains were found in a storage locker two weeks earlier. He told detectives that the children had starved themselves to death, according to testimony.
O’Brien allowed that Payne told lies during his five-hour statement to police.
He asked jurors to consider Payne’s heroin withdrawal and whether his confession was voluntary.
O’Brien asked jurors to consider the credibility of certain witnesses, especially Gonzales.
“If you take away the testimony of Reina Gonzales, what has the state proved here?” O’Brien asked.
O’Brien said he tried to go through Gonzales’ statements and testimony to count up her lies, but they were too many to list.
O’Brien noted that Gonzales never testified that she saw Payne hurt the children so much it would have broken bones, as Ariana suffered.
“You can’t tell when the bones were broken,” O’Brien said. “You certainly can’t convict a man of breaking those bones and when is it he is supposed to have broken them.”
O’Brien repeatedly stressed how Gonzales was home in the apartment while Payne was out for hours selling drugs.
“Suppose, suppose, suppose Reina did not care for Jamie Hallam’s children,” O’Brien said. “One of the things that you should consider is that there were three children in the apartment and the one that survived was the one with Reina Gonzales’ DNA.
“Does that mean Chris made good choices? Chris Payne should have done something different, absolutely,” O’Brien said.
“But suppose that this man, misguided as he was in work, though, had that old-fashioned notion that he’s leaving to go to work every morning and that the woman who is the mother of his third child would take care of his other children as well while he was gone; and suppose that Reina as a way of taking care of three children began to put (Ariana and Tyler) into the closet.”
O’Brien said Payne did show an extreme indifference toward his children’s health and safety but that was not premeditation.