Tison v. Arizona

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Tison v. Arizona
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued November 3, 1986
Decided April 21, 1987
Full case nameRaymond and Ricky Tison v. State of Arizona
Citations481 U.S. 137 ( more )
107 S. Ct. 1676; 95 L. Ed. 2d 127; 1987 U.S. LEXIS 1808
Case history
PriorConvictions affirmed by the Supreme Court of Arizona, 633 P.2d 335 (Ariz. 1981), and denial of post-conviction relief affirmed by the Supreme Court of Arizona, 690 P.2d 747 (Ariz. 1984); cert. granted, 475 U.S. 1010(1986).
The death penalty may be imposed due to the felony murder rule on a murder defendant who did not intend to cause the death, but was a major participant in the underlying felony and exhibits extreme indifference to human life.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
William J. Brennan Jr.  · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall  · Harry Blackmun
Lewis F. Powell Jr.  · John P. Stevens
Sandra Day O'Connor  · Antonin Scalia
Case opinions
MajorityO'Connor, joined by Rehnquist, White, Powell, Scalia
DissentBrennan, joined by Marshall; Blackmun, Stevens (parts I, II, III, IV-A)
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. VIII

Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137 (1987), is a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court qualified the rule it set forth in Enmund v. Florida (1982). Just as in Enmund, in Tison the Court applied the proportionality principle to conclude that the death penalty was an appropriate punishment for a felony murderer who was a major participant in the underlying felony and exhibited a reckless indifference to human life.


Factual background

This case stems from an infamous prison break during the summer of 1978. Gary Tison was serving a life sentence at the Arizona State Prison in Florence for killing a prison guard. His three sons, Donald, Ricky, and Raymond, plotted to break him and his cellmate, Randy Greenawalt, out of prison. On July 30, 1978, the sons entered the prison for a visit, taking advantage of a policy that allowed an informal picnic setting for weekend family visits, carrying an ice chest packed with revolvers and sawed-off shotguns. [1] One of them aimed a sawed-off shotgun at a lobby guard. Greenawalt helped in the escape by cutting off telephones and alarm systems. [2]

They escaped in Donald Tison's 1969 Lincoln Continental, but the next day, one of the Lincoln's tires blew out on a stretch of road not far from the California border, near Quartzsite. Marine Sgt. John Lyons, 24, of Yuma, traveling with his wife, son, and niece on his way to visit family in Nebraska, stopped to help.

While Raymond Tison was showing John Lyons the flat tire, the other escapees emerged from the brush. Raymond forced the Lyonses into the Lincoln, and then he and Donald drove the Lincoln down a service road. Meanwhile, the other Tisons transferred their belongings into the Lyonses' car, keeping the Lyonses' money and guns. Gary Tison shot out the radiator on the Lincoln and forced the Lyonses out. John Lyons began begging Gary Tison for his life; Gary Tison remarked that he was "thinking about" killing the Lyonses. Gary told Raymond and Ricky to go back to the Lyonses' car and get some water. According to Raymond, while they were gone, Gary started shooting the Lyonses; according to Ricky, the shooting began once they returned with the water. The two agreed that they had returned in time to watch the elder Tison and Greenawalt kill the Lyonses. Their bodies were found five days later. [1]

Then, in Colorado, police believe that on August 8 the gang murdered James Judge Jr. and his new wife, Margene. The Amarillo, Texas couple were honeymooning in southwestern Colorado at the time. (Their bodies were not found until November 1978, at a campsite near Pagosa Springs, Colorado.) The gang returned to Arizona, and were driving the Judges' van on Chuichu Road on the Papago Indian Reservation (now the Tohono Oʼodham Nation), when they encountered a police roadblock. [1] [2] They ran the roadblock, and a shootout took place at a second roadblock, south of Casa Grande, Arizona. [3]

Donald Tison, who was driving the van, was killed at the scene; the others fled on foot. Raymond, Ricky, and Greenawalt were quickly caught, but Gary Tison escaped into the desert. Over 300 police officers and hundreds of volunteers searched for him, but he eluded them. He did not elude the August desert — he died of exposure. [2] His body was found eleven days after the shootout. [1]

Greenawalt and the surviving Tisons were charged with 92 crimes, including four counts of murder. (No charges were brought for the murder of the Judges, and Colorado authorities closed the cases when the surviving gang members were convicted in Arizona.) [1]

Criminal proceedings

The two remaining Tison brothers were tried individually for capital murder in the deaths of the Lyonses. The murder charges were predicated on Arizona's felony-murder statute, which provided that killings that occurred during a robbery or kidnapping were first-degree, death-eligible murders. The Tison brothers were convicted. At a separate sentencing hearing, three aggravating factors were proved: the Tisons had created a grave risk of death to others, the murders were committed for pecuniary gain, and the murders were especially heinous, cruel, or depraved. The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the death sentences. In the intervening years, the Supreme Court decided Enmund v. Florida, leading the Tison brothers to bring a collateral attack on their sentences, claiming that Enmund required their death sentences to be struck down. The Arizona Supreme Court rejected this argument, asserting that the dictates of Enmund had been satisfied because the intent requirement of that case could be inferred from the fact that death was a foreseeable result of participating in a dangerous felony.


Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority, concluded that the death penalty would be appropriate for a murder like the ones the Tisons had been convicted of if it could be shown that the defendant was a major participant in the underlying felony and had acted with reckless indifference to human life. In Kennedy v. Louisiana , 554 U.S. 407 (2008), the Court added with respect to the defendants in Tison it "allowed the defendants’ death sentences to stand where they did not themselves kill the victims but their involvement in the events leading up to the murders was active, recklessly indifferent, and substantial." [4]

Later, the death penalties of Ricky and Raymond Tison were reduced to life sentences because they were both under 20 at the time of the crimes. Greenawalt was executed in 1997.

The 1978 escape has been the subject of two films:

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 "Member of infamous Tison gang in line for execution in Arizona". Lubbock Avalanche-Journal . Associated Press. January 20, 1997. Retrieved May 28, 2013.
  2. 1 2 3 "Nation: Death in the Desert". Time . September 4, 1978. Archived from the original on November 7, 2012. Retrieved May 28, 2013.
  3. "Randy Greenawalt". The Arizona Republic. June 22, 2004.
  4. "Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008), Opinion of the Court, Part II". Justia US Supreme Court Center. June 25, 2008. Retrieved April 5, 2022.