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September, 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.