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As Execution Date Nears, Man on Death Row Seeks Reprieve from Governor

Courtesy of the Innocence Project


A Tennessee man who claims his impending execution this year is unconstitutional because of his intellectual disability is seeking clemency from Governor Bill Lee. 

Pervis Payne received a death sentence for the 1987 double murder of Charisse Christopher, 28, and her two-year-old daughter, Lacie Jo, in Millington.

His lawyers say not only was the53-year-old wrongfully convicted, but Tennessee also lacks a legal procedure for Payne to argue his intellectual disability claim.

“There is simply too much doubt in this case to permit an execution,” the clemency petition states. 

The request asks the governor to commute Payne’s sentence to life imprisonment or grant a stay of execution while state lawmakers address a “hole in the law” that hasstymied Payne’s ability to bring his disability claim before the courts. 

The head of the Tennessee Black Caucus has promised to file legislation on the issue next session, but the General Assembly will not resume until after Payne’s scheduled execution in December.

A 2002 Supreme Court ruling prohibits using capital punishment in sentencing the intellecutally disabled. Payne’s petition cites research showing that individuals with intellectual disabilities are more likley to face criminal justice disparities. 

Defense attorneys are also awaiting the results of DNA testing from the crime scene, which they say could help exonerate Payne. Testing was not available at the time of his trial and has never been conducted on evidence in the case.  

Payne has spent three decades on death row, insisting on his version of events the day the murders happened. He says he entered the crime scene after hearing commotion in a neighboring apartment in his girlfriend’s complex. Upon finding the victims, he says he tried to help by removingthe murder weapon, a knife, from Christopher’s throat. As police began to arrive, Payne says he became overwhelmed and fled, fearing false accusation and arrest as a Black man. The victims were white.

Shelby County prosecutors, who most recently fought the DNA testing request, have repeatedly said Payne’s guilt was proven during his trial with overwhelming evidence. They’ve pointed to finding his fingerprints on several items from the crime scene, his admission to touching the murder weapon and a police officer identifying him as running from the scene. Payne’s baseball cap was also found on the child victim’s arm.

A spokesperson for Gov. Lee said, “We've received the request and will give it a thorough review.”

The petition says Payne’s lawyers intend to meet with Lee’s legal team at the end of the month. 

In July, Lee granted another death row inmate a temporary reprievefrom his execution until December 31, citing complications caused by the COVID pandemic. 

This post has updated a sentence regarding the petition's statement that people with disabilties are at a greater risk of wrongful convicitions.