Christopher Mathew Payne’s family and acquaintances portrayed him as a hard-working employee, loving brother and nephew, devoted son and grandson and doting father during the final phase of his death penalty trial.
“He was very caring and compassionate toward people who were down and out,” his stepmother, Patricia Payne, testified Thursday.
Prosecutors, though, asked defense witnesses about Payne’s darker side.
Patricia Payne testified that one time she noticed a favorite lamp was missing. She found it in her teenage stepson’s closet, being used to grow marijuana plants.
Deputy County Attorney Sue Eazer asked Patricia Payne about a time when her sister suspected Chris Payne was taking advantage of his stepgrandmother.
“I was not aware of that,” Patricia Payne testified.
Maternal aunt Terry White testified that she put up her house to post bond for her nephew after he was jailed on a domestic violence charge.
“Lucky for you the case was dismissed because other witnesses didn’t show up. Otherwise you would have lost your house,” Eazer said.
“That’s right,” White replied.
“Chris paid you back the bond money, though?” Assistant Public Defender Rebecca McLean asked minutes later.
“No!” White blurted.
Earlier, McLean presented a list of mitigating factors intended to persuade jurors to choose a life sentence over death.
McLean said Payne is loved by his family, had a “disrupted” childhood, was addicted to drugs and had a relationship with “toxic” Reina Gonzales.
Payne was convicted Tuesday of two counts of first-degree murder, three counts of child abuse and two counts of concealing or abandoning a body in the deaths of Ariana, 3, and Tyler Payne, 4.
Jurors must find whether each mitigating factor is more likely than not true, then must give each factor weight compared to the aggravating factors – there was more than one victim, the victims were minors and their deaths especially cruel and heinous – in deciding whether to send Payne to death row.
This final stage of the trial is expected to run into next week. Jurors will return Tuesday.
Payne’s life was disrupted when he was 4 months old and his mother was told she had brain cancer, McLean said.
After she died, Payne’s dad, Forrest, became depressed and drank heavily, McLean said.
In high school, Payne began hanging out with other kids who used drugs, but he also became involved in community service at a nursing home.
At one point, Payne’s family entered him into a now-closed rehab facility. Afterward, McLean said, he went through periods when he kept clean, but his addiction escalated.
After divorcing Jamie Hallam, Ariana and Tyler’s mother, Payne met Gonzales and they had a child together. Payne became a stay-at-home dad while Gonzales worked.
Eventually, Payne began working for a medical transportation company where he was considered “mature, dependable and reliable.”
Payne became aware that Hallam had a drug problem, McLean said.
“He knew that CPS wanted him to take the children. He wanted the children and he thought he would be a better parent,” McLean said.
“How could he go from being a good, caring father and a good employee to having children that were neglected and died?”
McLean said an expert witness will testify how Payne’s life devolved, his upbringing contributed to his downfall, his addiction contributed to the tragic spin and a “toxic Reina Gonzales” affected him.
Earlier Thursday, Hallam read a statement to Pima County Superior Court Judge Richard Fields about the impact her children’s death has had on her.
“It saddens me to no end to know my precious little boy and my sweet little girl were treated so cruel,” their mother said.
Hallam said her biggest regret is leaving the children with Payne on Jan. 20, 2006, the last day she saw Ariana and Tyler.
Ariana Payne’s decomposed remains were found Feb. 18, 2007, inside a plastic tub at a North Side storage unit.
Most haunting of all, Hallam said, is knowing that Tyler’s remains will likely never be found.
“How am I supposed to sleep at night knowing my baby will never truly be at rest?” Hallam said. “The sun will come up again for us, but it will never come up for the real victims of this crime.”