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No Execution for TN Man on Death Row; Lawyers Now Focus on Life Sentences

Courtesy of the Innocence Project (Laramie Renae)
Pervis Payne embraces his attorney during a court hearing November 23, 2021

A Tennessee man who faced execution appeared in court Tuesday for the first time since the state agreed that his intellectual disability made him ineligible for a death sentence.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors now are arguing over how Pervis Payne, 54, should serve out his two life sentences.

Payne is still convicted of fatally stabbing a Millington woman and her young daughter more than three decades ago — a crime Payne denies committing.

He was originally sentenced to death, but Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich announced last week that his impending execution could no longer proceed after a state expert confirmed his intellectual disability.

Federal and state law prohibit use of the death penalty for intellectually disabled individuals.

A county criminal court judge officially overturned Payne’s death sentence Tuesday.

Defense attorney Kelley Henry embraced Payne as he wept at the hearing. Afterwards, she called the most recent development in his case a “measure of justice.”

“Never again will Pervis Payne wake up in the morning wondering whether or not his life will be extinguished by the State of Tennessee,” she told reporters.

Henry is now trying to convince the court to order Payne’s two life sentences to be served concurrently, which could make him eligible for parole in as little as six years. But prosecutors argue the judge is required to run the sentences back to back.

“Which would essentially mean that Pervis would not be eligible for parole until he was 85-years-old,” Henry said.

A ruling is expected next month. In the meantime, Henry still hopes to prove Payne’s innocence.

Since his initial trial, Payne has offered his version of events, saying he entered the crime scene after hearing a commotion. He says he initially tried to help the victims, Charisse Christopher, 28, and her toddler daughter, Lacie Jo, who had been stabbed. He then fled fearing that as a Black man he would appear guilty.

“We know that when people hear about his case, someone is going to come forward,” Henry said, surrounded by Payne’s family members and supporters. “Someone is going to come forward and tell us who really committed this offense.”

She noted that Payne is still seeking clemency from Governor Bill Lee, who signed a bill into law earlier this year that allowed for Payne to make his disability claim.

Prosecutors have described the evidence used to convict Payne as “overwhelming,” including  pointing out that upon his appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court said the jury was right to find his testimony “unbelievable and contrary to human conduct and experience.”

Payne’s family has deep connections in the faith community, which has advocated for him. Supporters celebrated outside the courtroom on Tuesday.

“Lies travel fast, lies ha[ve] wings,” his father, Pastor Carl Payne said. “Truth has legs, and when the truth get there, it will straighten everything out.”

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