He locked children in closet, starved them
A Pima County jury Tuesday decided Christopher M. Payne should be sentenced to death for killing his children Ariana and Tyler Payne.
Payne showed no emotion as the two death penalty verdicts were read.
The children were starved to death, locked in a closet in Payne’s apartment in 2006 while he fed and cared for his third child, a son he had with his live-in girlfriend, Reina Gonzales, 24.
That child, now 4, is in the state’s foster care system.
Gonzales pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for her part in the Payne children’s deaths. She also agreed to testify against Payne to avoid the death penalty.
Payne was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder March 17 after the jury deliberated about three hours. He was also found guilty on child abuse and concealing a body charges.
Prosecutors had told jurors that the existence of at least one of three aggravating factors would warrant the death penalty:
• More than one victim.
• Minors were victims of an adult.
• The murders were committed in an especially cruel, heinous or depraved manner.
County prosecutor Susan Eazer told the jury Payne chose to be a drug addict and should be held responsible for his behavior.
She said the manner in which he killed the children was heinous and cruel.
“Every day he locked those battered and broken babies in that closet, he chose to become a killer,” Eazer told the jury.
“Every day he watched them wither away when he went out and got high; he chose to become a killer.”
Payne will remain in the Pima County Jail until sentencing April 30 on the other charges in the case. His death sentences will be automatically appealed under state law.
The jury deliberated about five hours over two days in the penalty phase of the case and could have chosen a sentence of life in prison without parole or life with parole possible after 35 years for each of the murders.
Ariana’s putrefied remains were found in a plastic bin in a storage locker Feb. 18, 2006.
An autopsy showed she had multiple broken ribs, her spine had been snapped and her right shoulder had been broken in the weeks leading up to her death.
The remains of Tyler, 4, have not been found. Police believe they were dumped in a landfill. Payne told police detectives he placed the bodies on top of each other in the same plastic bin.
Payne’s defense team acknowledged his role in the deaths but said several factors warranted a sentence of life in prison rather than death.
A defense expert said Payne had an antisocial personality disorder.
Payne’s public defender, John O’Brien, said Payne suffered from a disrupted childhood, a failure to form healthy attachments and a toxic, “synergistic” relationship with Gonzales, a fellow addict with a low IQ and low self-esteem.
“He did not choose to be an addict,” O’Brien said.
Payne was using heroin up to four times a day during the eight or so weeks he held his two children captive, according to testimony. Payne admitted using marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, cocaine and heroin over a period of years, beginning when he was about 15.
“It’s everybody’s fault except Christopher Payne,” Eazer said in the penalty phase of the trial Monday.
“It would have been wonderful if CPS had not directed police to leave the children with Mr. Payne but CPS did not kill Ariana and Tyler. Christopher Payne killed Ariana and Tyler.”
State Sen. Jonathan L. Paton sat in on the penalty phase of the trial.
He pushed for reforms to the state’s child welfare laws last year after details of the Payne case and another Tucson child welfare case that ended in death become public in late 2007.
Jamie Hallam, Payne’s ex-wife, claimed that state Child Protective Services told a police officer in March 2006 not to return her children to her, even though she had full custody.
The CPS worker, according to testimony, said the agency was investigating Hallam for possible drug use and that she was not being cooperative.
Payne told police he was seeking custody of the children.
However, CPS workers never checked the Hallam-Payne custody documents, which showed Payne had been denied any contact with his children and had a history of domestic violence. Nor did they check his criminal record.
Hallam won a $1 million settlement from CPS as a result of a civil lawsuit. Her claim against the Tucson Police Department is pending.
Payne complained in a recorded jail visit with his father and played for the jury that the Legislature’s scrutiny of CPS was to blame for his current situation.
But Paton said Monday Payne “and his girlfriend” alone are responsible for the murders.
“I don’t think he’d be any less guilty if the Legislature didn’t hold (those) hearings,” Paton said.
“Nowhere does that absolve a man of starving his kids to death.”
Patricia Payne, Christopher Payne’s stepmother, wept when the verdict of death was read to the court. She and Payne’s father quickly left the courtroom and declined to speak publicly.
Hallam and her mother left the courtroom after the verdict and declined to speak to news reporters.
Jurors also declined to speak to reporters.
The last time someone was sentenced to death in Pima County was in March 2005, when John Montenegro Cruz was sentenced to death for the Memorial Day 2003 shooting death of Tucson police Officer Patrick K. Hardesty.
Cruz remains on death row. There are 117 men and two women on death row; 25 of them were sentenced in Pima County.