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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee Postpones December Execution Due To COVID-19 Pandemic

Courtesy PervisPayne.org


The state of Tennessee will not execute Pervis Payne next month, as planned.

Gov. Bill Lee announced Friday that he is a postponing Payne’s execution until April of next year, because of COVID-19. Riverbend Maximum Security Facility, where executions take place, has been closed to the public since March.

State law allows a handful of people to witness executions, including immediate family members of both the victim and the prisoner, attorneys and up to seven members of the media. Most witnesses sit close together in a small viewing room, which has little space for social distancing.

The news comes two days after the chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus filed a bill that would add protections from execution for people who are intellectually disabled, a term that is typically defined as someone with an IQ of around 70 or below. Payne’s attorneys say his IQ is 68.4 and that his math, reading and memory skills rank near the very bottom for his age. However, the new bill can’t be debated until the legislative session begins in January.

Both the state and federal Supreme Courts have condemned the use of the death penalty when someone is intellectually disabled. But there is no procedure in place for people who had already been sentenced to death in Tennessee and want to appeal that decision.

“Governor Lee was right to delay Pervis Payne’s execution due to the COVID-19 crisis,” defense attorney Kelley Henry said in an emailed statement. “This additional time will give the Tennessee legislature the opportunity to pass bipartisan legislation to allow Mr. Payne’s and others’ claims of intellectual disability to be heard in court.”

Payne, who is Black, has spent more than three decades on death row for the 1987 stabbing of a white woman and her two children. He has always maintained his innocence.

The Innocence Project recently paid for DNA testing on a set of newly discovered evidence and expects the results later this month.

“This additional time will also allow us to investigate Mr. Payne’s strong innocence claim, together with the Innocence Project,” Henry said.

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.