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Photo: Laramie Renae/ Innocence Project
Pervis Payne is still on the hook for a life sentence lawyers are still trying to overturn. Photo: Laramie Renae/ Innocence Project

Tennessee man freed from death row after 34 years, but fight continues for exoneration

Pervis Payne was deemed intellectually disabled by a judge, barring him from execution. His initial execution date was stayed by the pandemic.

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Pervis Payne has been freed from death row after a Tennessee judge declared he is intellectually disabled. 

Payne was sentenced to death for the 1987 killing of Charisse Christopher, 28, and her two-year-old daughter Lacie Jo, but he has maintained his innocence for over three decades. 

Payne told police he had been at the apartment building in Millington to meet his girlfriend when he came across the victims and tried to help them, and panicked and fled when the police showed up. 

Payne, 54, was supposed to be executed last year, but Gov. Bill Lee postponed it due to the pandemic. State law already prohibited capital punishment for those with intellectual disabilities, but up until now there was no process for people already on death row to challenge it in court. 

On May. 11, 2021, Lee signed a law that allows people on death row with intellectual disabilities to request a lesser sentence if they’ve never had the chance to do so before. 

The next day, Payne’s attorneys, along with Rep. G.A. Hardaway, filed a petition under the new procedure in Shelby County Criminal Court stating that Payne, as a person with an undisputed diagnosis of intellectual disability, is categorically barred from execution. 

The petition included IQ test results, educational records and expert findings, along with declarations from family members, teachers, employers and others who have known Payne.

“He has significantly subaverage intellectual functioning, significant adaptive deficits in each domain, and his disability manifested prior to age 18,” the petition states. 

On Thursday, Nov. 18, Shelby County District Attorney conceded that Payne is a person with an intellectual disability, and thus cannot be executed. 

On Nov. 23, Payne was formally removed from death row by Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan. 

“When I was 13, I sat in the court and I heard the judge sentence him to death by way of the electric chair,” Payne’s sister, Rolanda Holman, told the Innocence Project

“Today, I sat in the same court and I got an opportunity at 47-years-old to hear the judge say that Pervis Payne’s death sentence has been canceled. If that’s not celebratory I don’t know what is, so I am so grateful today,” she said. 

Payne’s case gained new attention after the Innocence Project took it on. The nonprofit claims his case has all the signs of a wrongful conviction due to crucial missing evidence and racial bias. Payne is Black and the victims were white. 

Innocence Project’s petition, which amassed more than 700,000 signatures, continues urging people to join Payne’s ‘fight for justice.”

Payne’s lawyers have argued that police focused almost exclusively on him as a suspect, despite him having no prior criminal history and nothing in his background suggesting he was capable of committing such a crime. 

For the first time in 2020, Skahan ruled to allow for DNA testing in Payne’s case., His DNA was found on the hilt of the knife used in the murder, which his attorneys say matches his trial testimony that he cut himself while handling the knife as he tried to help the victims. 

His DNA was not found on the knife’s handle, but partial DNA evidence from an unknown man was found. But there was not enough material to enter it into a national FBI database. 

Payne’s attorneys also said that vital pieces of evidence, including scrapings from Christopher’s fingernails that were collected from the crime scene, went missing and could not be tested. 

The district attorney’s office asked the court to vacate his death sentence and re-sentence him to two consecutive life sentences. If its request for consecutive sentences is approved, Mr. Payne will effectively be serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. 

Skahan signed the motion to set aside Payne’s death sentence, and said she will decide whether the sentences should run consecutively or concurrently at a later date. 

Even if the judge determines that Mr. Payne should serve concurrent sentences, there is no guarantee that the parole board would ever grant Mr. Payne parole.

“We look forward to Mr. Payne’s resentencing hearing,” said Kelley Henry, Payne’s assistant federal public defender.

"This is some measure of justice for Mr. Payne and his family, but our fight for full exoneration of this innocent man will continue."

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