Citizen Staff Writer
Christopher Mathew Payne rocked slowly in his swivel chair as Pima County Superior Court Judge Richard S. Fields examined the verdicts that would decide his fate.
Just a few feet away, Jamie Hallam clasped her hands and tucked them under her chin as she waited to hear whether her ex-husband would be held fully responsible for the gruesome deaths of their children.
Payne’s chair came to a halt as the verdicts were read aloud by a clerk:
Guilty, first-degree murder, in the deaths of Ariana Payne, 3, and Tyler Pane, 4.
Over three hours of deliberations, jurors had rendered the verdicts that would send Payne’s three-week trial into the death-penalty phase.
Jurors also convicted Payne of two counts of child abuse against Ariana, one count of child abuse against Tyler as well as two counts of concealing or abandoning a body.
Jurors were expected to return Wednesday to decide whether Payne is qualified for the death penalty and, if he is, begin hearing defense evidence in favor of a life sentence.
Prosecutors will ask jurors to find at least one of three aggravating factors exist that could call for the death penalty:
• There was more than one victim.
• The victims were minors and the defendant an adult.
• The murders were committed in an especially cruel, heinous or depraved manner.
Prosecutors said they will tell jurors to rely on the evidence brought up at trial and closing arguments to make their decisions on the aggravating factors.
If jurors find at least one of those factors exist, then the trial will move into the mitigation phase in which defense attorneys will present evidence intended to persuade the jury to choose a life sentence over death.
If jurors find that the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravators, Fields will either sentence Payne to life in prison with no possibility of parole or with parole possible in 25 years.
If jurors find the aggravators outweigh the mitigators, Payne will be sent to death row at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Florence. Death penalty cases are automatically appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court.
The last time Arizona executed an inmate was Robert Comer in May 2002.
Ariana Payne’s decomposed remains were found Feb. 18, 2007, in a plastic tub that had been stored at a North Side storage unit.
Tyler’s remains were never found, but Payne confessed to police the children starved to death under his care and he put their bodies in the tub.
Trial testimony showed that Tyler’s body was likely thrown in a large garbage bin by the manager of the storage locker facility and the bin’s contents taken to Los Reales Landfill.
Police searched Los Reales twice, but never found the body.
Prosecutors argued at trial that after Hallam dropped the children off for a visit in January 2006, Payne kept them because he resented paying child support.
After Payne lost his job in April 2006, he began abusing heroin frequently and locked the children in a bedroom closet, where they starved to death in August or September, prosecutors said.
Defense attorneys argued that Payne’s girlfriend, Reina Irene Gonzales, abused and starved the children.
Gonzales, 24, was charged similarly to Payne and might have faced the death penalty if convicted, but pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and gets a 22-year prison sentence in exchange for testifying against him.
Payne trial heads to death-penalty phase