PHOENIX — The Arizona Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously upheld the
convictions and death sentences of a Tucson man for starving his two young
children to death while they were locked in a closet.
Christopher Mathew Payne and his girlfriend starved and abused 3-year-old
Ariana Payne and 4-year-old Tyler Payne for months until they died in September
The case drew critical attention to Tucson police and the state child-welfare
agency because authorities had prior contact with Payne and his children. The
case also figured in enactment of state laws intended to make state Child
Protective Services more accountable and transparent.
Payne was convicted of first-degree murder, child abuse and concealing a dead
According to trial testimony, Reina Gonzales had complained to Payne about his
children’s behavior while they were at home when he was at work, and he punished
them by locking them in a closet and denying them food.
The daughter’s decomposed body was found in a storage unit after Payne stopped
paying rent on the unit. The boy’s body wasn’t found.
Saying that the children suffered “mental anguish and physical pain,” the
court rejected Payne’s challenge to a jury finding that supported a death
sentence because the killings were committed in an especially heinous, cruel or
The prosecution, the ruling said, “presented substantial evidence that Payne
locked his children in a closet to live in darkness and filth, suffering from
injuries while they slowly starved to death.”
The jurors also said other circumstances supporting a death sentence include
the young ages of the victims and the fact that there was more than one killing.
In one of his appeal arguments, Payne’s lawyers said the trial judge should
have moved the trial from Tucson because of extensive news coverage about the
The justices disagreed, saying that most of the coverage was published long
before the trial and Payne didn’t show that the jurors who decided his fate were
prejudiced against him.
Gonzales pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and is serving
concurrent 22-year prison terms.
Months before the children died, the children’s mother had complained to police
that she had legal custody of the children, but police allowed Payne to keep the
children after officers spoke with a CPS official.
Accounts differed on what the CPS official told police.
CPS had previously investigated an allegation of neglect by the mother, but it
The state agreed to a $1 million settlement with the mother, Jamie Hallam.
Following 2007 hearings that examined CPS’ handling of the Payne case and
others involving parents, the Arizona Legislature in 2008 approved laws to
provide new oversight for the agency.
The new laws included increased public access to CPS information after the
death or serious injury of a child. Others provisions opened some CPS-related
court proceedings and allowed inspection of state employee disciplinary records.