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Proposed Bill Would Prevent Executions Of The Intellectually Disabled In Tennessee

Courtesy of the Innocence Project


Nov. 4 is the first day to file legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly for the upcoming session, and the state’s Black Caucus has already submitted the first House bill.

The proposed measure (HB 1) would provide one more chance at life for people who have been sentenced to death and lost all their appeals. And it would allow the courts to overturn someone’s death sentence if he or she is intellectually disabled.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis), who sponsored the bill, says the legislation was inspired by Pervis Payne, a Black man who has spent more than three decades on death row for a crime he says he did not commit. His execution is scheduled for next month.

“Intellectual disability is real, and, merely because of a procedural issue, we are on the verge of murdering Mr. Pervis Payne and not allowing him the opportunity to seek justice,” he says. 

Payne’s attorneys have urged the court to reconsider his sentence, because of his low IQ. His legal team also raised the issue in a clemency petition filed last month, which was signed by more than 150 supporters. They cite a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which prohibits the death penalty for people who are intellectually disabled, because it violates Eighth Amendment protections from “cruel and unusual punishments.”

Tennessee already has a law on the books that bars the death sentence for those with an I.Q. of 70 or below, even in cases of first-degree murder. And the Tennessee Supreme Court wrote in a previous ruling in Payne’s case “that Tennessee has no business executing persons who are intellectually disabled.”

However, current statute applies only to people who are still awaiting sentencing. The state has no process in place for people like Payne, who have already received the death penalty and want to challenge the decision.

“The filing of today’s bill, the very first bill of the 112th General Assembly, represents a victory for democracy and justice,” says federal defender Kelley Henry, one of Payne’s lawyers. “It demonstrates how our system is supposed to work.”

Still, the new legislation would not necessarily spare Payne’s life, even if it is signed into law. Payne is set to be executed on Dec. 3, weeks before Tennessee’s next legislative session begins.

Payne’s attorneys hope Gov. Bill Lee will postpone his execution while the bill makes it way through the legislative process. The governor’s office says it will give the clemency petition a “thorough review” but declined to comment on the specifics of the bill until it “gets closer to his desk.”

In the meantime, Payne’s attorneys are awaiting the DNA testing results of newly discovered crime scene evidence. A West Tennessee judge allowed his lawyers — with help from the Innocence Project — to test a set of eyeglasses, a knife and several other items that have never before been tested but could clear up doubts about Payne’s conviction.

Payne has never denied that he was in the kitchen where police found Charisse Christopher and her two children in a pool of blood in 1987. But he says he only entered to try to help, when he saw the door left open on his way to his girlfriend’s apartment across the hall.

When police arrived, Payne worried they would assume he, a young Black man, had stabbed Christopher, who was white. So he fled the scene. Law enforcement ultimately used that decision against him, saying it was evidence of his guilt.

Payne’s attorneys say DNA testing could reveal that someone else was also there that day and could have killed Christopher and her daughter. (Her son survived his wounds). Christopher’s now-deceased ex-husband, for instance, had been convicted of aggravated assault.

“We are trying very hard to prove what we know to be true, which is that Mr. Payne didn’t commit this crime and to bring justice both to his family and the family of Charisse and Lacie Christopher, because they haven’t received the truth all these years,” Henry says.”For 33 years the person who actually committed this murder has walked free.”

The Shelby County district attorney’s office has denied this claim and says the victims’ relatives have waited too long for justice. The defense team expects to receive the DNA results in mid-November.

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.