Archive for

2020



The Case of Pervis Payne

In 1987, a 20-year-old Black man with an intellectual disability goes to visit his girlfriend’s apartment in Millington, a town in West Tennessee. He hears noises coming from across the hall and wonders if someone needs help. He opens the door to the apartment and walks into a nightmare. Three decades later, he finds himself facing execution on December 3, 2020. That man is Pervis Payne.

“I saw the worst thing I ever saw in my life and like my breath just had—had tooken—just took out of me … she was looking at me,” Mr. Payne testified at his trial. He saw Charisse Christopher, a woman who he didn’t know, lying on the floor bleeding, along with her daughter, Lacie Jo, and her son, Nicholas. Only Nicholas survived.

Panicking at the horror of the scene and fearing the police would blame him for the crime, Mr. Payne fled the building. The police found him, and as he feared, they arrested him and investigated no one else from that point forward.

At his trial, Shelby County prosecutors relied on racist tropes of black male hypersexuality and drug abuse to convict him, ignoring and suppressing evidence inconsistent with their theory. They even repeatedly referred to the victim’s “white skin” during the trial.

Prosecutors argued that Mr. Payne, allegedly high on drugs and alcohol, made an advance on the victim, and when she refused him, he stabbed her to death.

But Mr. Payne had no history of drug use, no history of violence, and no criminal record. After his arrest, his mother even asked the police to give her son a drug test to prove he was not using drugs. They refused.

To date, the courts and Shelby County prosecutors have refused Mr. Payne’s repeated requests to have DNA testing conducted on more than a dozen items of evidence that have never been subjected to DNA analysis. 

This is a case with a number of factors that make it ripe for a wrongful conviction and death sentence—a Black man with intellectual disability accused of murdering a white woman in a county with a long history of racial violence where prosecutors played to racist themes and withheld exculpatory evidence.

Yesterday, a coalition of prominent Memphis groups, spearheaded by the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association, held a press conference urging the Shelby County DA to test the evidence and Governor Lee to commute Mr. Payne’s death sentence.

Speaking at the press conference, Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, president of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP, asked the question, “What does the district attorney’s office have to hide? All we’re asking is for DNA to be tested. If this is a fair conviction, if your guys got it right, if you have nothing to hide, then give us the DNA test. When you resist a DNA test, we know something wrong has occurred. … If you’re trying to hide something, something bad has gone down.”

As I write this blog, the Shelby County DA’s office is arguing before the Shelby County Criminal Court not to allow the DNA testing. A judge will decide whether or not the testing will be conducted.

Pervis Payne is also a person living with intellectual disability, which alone, makes his scheduled December 3rd execution unconstitutional.

In the 2002 Atkins vs. Virginia decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found that executing people with intellectual disability violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court explained that those with intellectual disability are a “special risk for wrongful execution” and that such defendants are often unable to assist their lawyers and make poor witnesses. These concerns played out in Pervis Payne’s case. 

The State of Tennessee has never denied that Mr. Payne has an intellectual disability, but the Tennessee courts have held that they do not have the power to hear his claim. Instead, they have urged the Tennessee General Assembly to create a legislative fix for individuals like Mr. Payne, who are denied an opportunity to present a claim of intellectual disability because of legal technicalities.

If the State of Tennessee wants to demonstrate that the pursuit of justice and truth is actually its top priority, then Pervis Payne must not be executed before he has an opportunity for his claims of intellectual disability and innocence to be fully and fairly heard.

Please visit Pervis Payne- Innocence Project and sign up to join Mr. Payne’s team of supporters. You will be updated about actions to take to raise awareness about this case and to secure clemency for Mr. Payne.

Tennessee Is Still Trying to Execute Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman Despite Undisputed Evidence of Racial Bias

In an interview with The New Yorker published on June 1, Bryan Stevenson reflects on the recent protests happening across our nation in response to the murder of George Floyd, stating:

We need to reckon with our history of racial injustice. I think everything we are seeing is a symptom of a larger disease.

According to Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, more than eight in 10 American lynchings between 1889 and 1918 took place in the South, and more than eight in 10 executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been in the South. 

In 1903, the Memphis Commercial Appeal noted that, “Life in this community is cheap: The life of a negro is so valueless that it is freely taken without fear of the future punishment in this world.”

Against this backdrop, Tennessee is litigating the case of Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman, who has spent three decades on death row. His case provides a glaring example of how racial bias continues to infect Tennessee’s legal system and the State’s resistance to addressing it.

In 1987, Tennessee sentenced Abdur’Rahman to die after the prosecutor improperly prevented Black jurors from sitting on the case and committed multiple acts of misconduct in the trial, including withholding evidence and altering testimony. 

In August 2019, Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk declared that:

Overt racial bias has no place in the justice system. Further and most importantly, the pursuit of justice is incompatible with deception. Prosecutors must never be dishonest or mislead defense counsel, courts, or juries. 

District Attorney Funk recommended that Mr. Abdur’Rahman be resentenced to three life sentences, and the trial court agreed.

But a few weeks later, in an unprecedented move, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery ignored the racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct and appealed the court’s decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court. He declared his intention to seek an expedited process to move forward with Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s execution. 

Today, eight of the jurors who sentenced Mr. Abdur’Rahman to death say they would not have done so if they heard all the facts.

BREAKING NEWS: On Tuesday, June 9, 2020, at 9:00 a.m. CT, the State of Tennessee will argue before the Court of Criminal Appeals that Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence should be reinstated.

To observe these proceedings, see the information below:

Live Stream https://www.youtube.com/user/TNCourts/videos 

To learn more about this case visit, https://www.justiceforabu.org/

Deadly Double Standard

My heart has been broken again by the death of Ahmaud Arbery. A young black man goes for a jog, part of his regular routine, and ends up dead– racially profiled, assumed guilty of something, hunted down, and then executed by white vigilantes.

Though I don’t post much on my personal Facebook page, I read a New York Times opinion piece by Charles M. Blow on Ahmaud’s murder and felt that I had to put it out there for others to read. The particular quote from the piece that struck me was the following:

As has too often been the case in this country, the law works to black people’s detriment and sometimes their demise.

Slavery was legal. The Black Codes were legal. Sundown towns were legal. Sharecropping was legal. Jim Crow was legal. Racial covenants were legal. Mass incarceration is legal. Chasing a black man or boy with your gun because you suspect him a criminal is legal. Using lethal force as an act of self-defense in a physical dispute that you provoke and could easily have avoided is, often, legal.

And, of course, we could add to that list that capital punishment is legal.

Though I would argue that the double standard of the legal system that is playing out in Ahmaud Arbery’s case is a key reason why it shouldn’t be.

Today, I read another piece by Daniele Selby posted by the Innocence Project. Selby’s article goes into even more detail about how the racism so grossly on display in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, also infects our legal system. Selby writes:

Arbery’s death highlights glaring inequality and racism that pervades all aspects of life in the United States, including the legal system. Throughout history, Black people — and Black men, in particular — have been robbed of the presumption of innocence and a fair shot at justice.

Innocent Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people, the National Registry of Exonerations reported. And, while Black people make up just 13% of the U.S. population, they account for 40% of the nearly 2.3 million incarcerated people in the country. This is not because of Black people commit more crimes, but, in large part, because of the way Black communities and other communities of color are policed and presumed guilty. Numerous studies have shown that Black and Latinx people are more likely to be stopped, searched, and suspected of a crime (even when no crime has occurred), due to implicit and explicit biases.

Anyone who continues to believe that our nation’s legal system is fairly and accurately applied is not paying attention. As long as this double standard is our reality, there is no room for the death penalty.

Read Charles M. Blow’s NYTimes piece

Read Daniele Selby’s piece

A Message from TADP Executive Director, March 23, 2020

As I write today, my thoughts are with you, and everyone in our global family. Like me, I’m sure you are struck by the profound changes and uncertainty that recent weeks have brought us.

TADP’s office in East Nashville sustained minor damage during the March 3rd tornado, but our neighbors just two streets over experienced destruction that will take months to address. Our beloved TADP Board Chair Bob Goodrich died on March 7th after a three-year struggle with leukemia, and COVID-19 has all but shut down the state.  

Today the Metro Public Health Department, “Safer at Home Order,” went into effect for Nashville and Davidson County residents and businesses. All businesses not performing essential services have been ordered closed for 14 days. I was already mostly working from home, but this order means that I am totally working from home now. 

In these difficult times, we are also thinking of the most vulnerable and marginalized in our communities—including those in our jails, prisons, and on death row. Even amid other crises, TADP’s work to stop executions and end the death penalty in Tennessee continues, and we are grateful for your partnership in that work.   

TADP had plans to launch a statewide campaign on March 11. We have postponed that campaign because of COVID-19. However, we are monitoring the situation and will launch as soon as it is strategically wise to do so. 

On the legislative front, the Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion Coalition (TASMIE) successfully advocated for the bill to exclude those with severe mental illness from the death penalty, which passed through the full House Judiciary Committee (25 members) on March 11!

This bipartisan vote is another huge hurdle for this legislation. The Tennessee General Assembly is now in recess until at least June 1, but in the meantime, TASMIE is developing plans to conduct online educational forums about the bill, including the use of the documentary film Too Ill to Execute.  

If you have not yet had the opportunity to watch this powerful film, I encourage you to do so during this time when so many of us find ourselves isolating. Share it with your friends and ask them to watch it as well. 

And though a few years old now, the TADP short film To Honor Life is another important educational tool to introduce Tennesseans to the problems with the death penalty.  Again, this film is a great way to introduce the myths and facts about the death penalty system and to share powerful stories of the system’s impact on those caught up in it. 

On March 18, attorneys for Oscar Smith, who is scheduled to be executed on June 4 in Tennessee, requested that the Tennessee Supreme Court stay his execution because of COVID-19 and its impact on his legal team. 

Assistant Federal Defender Kelley Henry stated in the motion to the court, “It would be irresponsible and against the public’s interest to conduct the necessary investigation during this pandemic. Mr. Smith’s team cannot conduct the work necessary to fulfill their obligation to him without putting themselves and others at risk. There is a tension between counsels’ obligation to Mr. Smith and to their own personal safety and that of their families and co-workers.”  

Three other Tennessee inmates are scheduld to be executed this year: Harold Nichols on Aug. 4; Byron Black on Oct. 8; and Pervis Payne on Dec. 3. 

TADP will continue to share information and updates as we have them. For now, please take good care of yourselves.