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Free of Death Row, Pervis Payne Awaits Judge’s Ruling on Prison Sentence

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Pervis Payne (right) during his resentencing hearing, December 13.

After a two-day hearing this week, a Shelby County judge will determine how long a man convicted of double homicide in 1987 could remain in prison now that he no longer faces state execution.

Pervis Payne’s case came back before the court last month after a state expert found him to be intellectually disabled, which under Tennessee and federal law invalidates his original death sentence.

Payne, 54, who has always alleged he was wrongfully convicted, still has to serve two life sentences for the fatal stabbing of a Millington woman, Charisse Christopher, and her toddler daughter, Lacie Jo. Christopher’s son Nicholas, age 3 at the time, also suffered stab wounds during the attack but survived.

Judge Paula Skahan, calling the decision “extremely difficult,” must rule if the sentences are to be served concurrently or back-to-back.

Prosecutors, along with members of the victims’ family, want the latter option, which would keep Payne in prison at least for another three decades.

But his defense team argued on Monday and Tuesday that Payne’s sentences should be run concurrently, which they say the law favors. This would make him eligible for parole in as little as six years.

Attorney Kelley Henry called Payne a model inmate for the 30-plus years he’s been incarcerated and argued he poses no threat to society.

Prison officials testified to his lack of a disciplinary record.

“It’s hard to do time and not get in trouble, very, very hard,” Henry told reporters after the hearing. “Pervis has shown everyday of his life the sort of person he is.”

During hours of testimony, numerous family members, friends and teachers described Payne as generous of spirit, kind and respectful and said he would have ample support as a future parolee.

A maximum security prison guard testified that Payne came to his aid after another inmate cut the officer, requiring more than 50 stitches.

“He is a person who helps, every single person you talk to about Pervis says he helps,” Henry said.

Helping is what Payne says he was doing the day that Christopher and her daughter were stabbed to death in their apartment in Millington. Payne, who was visiting his girlfriend in the complex, says he heard moans and entered Christopher’s apartment, where he tried to provide assistance after finding the two in pools of blood. He says he feared that as a Black man he would be presumed the killer so he ran away as police arrived.

His lawyers are still seeking to exonerate him.

Assistant District Attorney Steve Jones said a jury found Payne’s crimes “heinous, atrocious and cruel” and for that he should remain incarcerated until both sentences are run in their entirety.

Members of the victims’ family asked the judge to honor their loved ones’ legacy and back the prosecution’s request.

James Zvolanek said the murder of his sister and niece shattered the family’s lives.

“The void created when Charisse and Lacie were taken from us has been immense. Sometimes the pain is more than I can bear,” Zvolanek read from a letter to the court. “Time does not heal all wounds.”

Angela Johnson, another of Charisse’s siblings, said her sister’s death has exacted a heavy toll on Nicholas.

“You can still tell there’s a part of him that will never be happy ever, not without them,” she said.

Judge Skahan is expected to rule in January.

“This has been in the court system a long, long time,” she said at the end of the hearing. “I am compelled by both sides.”

This post has been updated to correct the spelling of James Zvolanek from Zbolanek.

Katie is a freelance contributor to WKNO. She's always eager to hear your story ideas. You can email her at kriordan@wkno.org