Pervis Payne has maintained his innocence for 33 years. From the time he was first incarcerated until now. Given that he lives with an intellectual disability, they have sentenced him to death in Tennessee for a crime he did not commit. Currently, Governor Bill Lee has given him a temporary reprieve until April 9, 2021. 

The backstory

One afternoon in June 1987, Payne was waiting for his girlfriend to return to her apartment in Millington, Tennessee. He heard cries for help through the open front door of the apartment. He discovered her neighbor, Charisse Christopher, and her children viciously attacked. Both her and her two young children, 2-year-old Lacie and 3-year-old Christopher, stabbed multiple times, with her son surviving the murder. Given his intellectual disability, the scene stunned him and tried to help. However, as soon as he saw the police arrive, he panicked and ran. Given he is Black, he knew police could mistake him for the attacker. Sure enough, they did. Later that day, they arrested him and, in February, convicted him of murder and sentenced him to death. 

What we need to know about the case


The prosecution has portrayed extremely biased and racial stereotypes on Payne. For example, they claimed that as a Black man, he was a hypersexual violent drug user who attacked a white woman. Not to mention the county where Payne’s trial is has a history deeply rooted in racism. It is among the 25 counties with the most recorded lynchings between 1877 and 1950 in the U.S. To this day, the county has a deep history with slavery that still cherishes that legacy to this day. 

The prosecution has repeatedly highlighted the victim’s “white skin” when referring to certain parts of her body during the trial. However, this is not new. Often these stereotypes are forced onto Black men who become falsely accused in cases involving white women. Cases such as the Central Park Five and Emmett Till. Black people are seven times more likely to face wrongful convictions of murder than white people. Studies also show the color of one’s skin factors into the death sentence applied.

Around 300 Black people accused of murdering white people have been executed since 1976. This is 14 times more than the number of white people executed for murdering white people. Currently, 53% of inmates on death row are not white. All we have to do is look at the recent execution of Brandon Bernard. While he did not kill the couple murdered, they sentenced him to death for setting their car on fire. 

Intellectual disability

Payne had no motive to commit the crime. He lives with an intellectual disability and is described by those who know him as a kind and respectful individual. He loved to make his mother and sisters laugh and helped his father at church. The prosecution claimed he had taken drugs that day, was looking to sleep with someone and attacked Charisse when she refused his advances. There is no evidence there were drugs in his system that day, and he has no criminal record. 

It is unconstitutional to execute Payne because of his intellectual disability. Cite a 2002 Supreme Court (Atkins V. Virginia) ruling which prohibits the death penalty for those who are intellectually disabled. It violates the Eighth Amendment from “cruel and unusual” punishment. Often those who have a disability and end up on death row are not pardoned. Just recently, the first woman to be executed since 1953 was suffering from mental disability but was still put to death. An overwhelming majority of executed inmates suffer from either an intellectual impairment, mental illness, were barely an adult when arrested, or endured severe childhood trauma. 

Growing up, Payne struggled in school and could not graduate because of his disability. He had difficulty reading, spelling, and doing math. Payne could not follow detailed instructions, which included driving to new places. He often had trouble with everyday chores such as cooking or doing laundry and needed help feeding himself until he was five. Because of his disability, he could not fully take part in the trial, and for the longest time, was ignored by the prosecution. Doctors have since confirmed his intellectual disability. 

Joann White participates in a rally on Union Avenue for death row inmate Pervis Payne in Memphis, Tenn., on Wednesday, September 9, 2020. Ariel Cobbert/ The Commercial Appeal

Key evidence missing

For decades the evidence went untested. Then last year, the Shelby County Criminal Court ordered a test, and on January 19, 2021, submitted these results to the court. The test revealed an unknown male’s DNA was present at the scene. However, because the evidence deteriorated, they could not identify an alternate suspect, according to the FBI’s database. 

The victim’s fingernails had also mysteriously gone missing. A crucial piece of evidence since the prosecution argued she scratched her attacker. Recently the DNA of an unknown male found on the knife used in the murder. However, Judge Paula Skahan stated another person’s DNA on the life would not exonerate Payne. Once again, the DNA sample was not complete enough to run through the database. 

Potential suspect

The victim’s ex-husband has a history of physical, mental, and emotional abuse. Initially, the prosecution excluded him as a potential suspect for the investigation because he was serving time at the Fort Pillow State Penitentiary for aggravated assault. However, this was a minimum-security prison, and an employee admitted inmates could leave during the day. Therefore, it was common for inmates to leave without repercussions. This means it would have been possible for him to visit the victim and potentially commit the crime while serving his sentence. Payne saw a man flee the scene before discovering the victim; he and another witness spotted him.

How can his execution be prevented?

The bill HB 1 SB 1236, which is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, provides one more chance at life for people sentenced to the death penalty and lost all their appeals. Representative G. A. Hardaway, the chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, filed this bill that would create a process to submit a claim based on Payne’s intellectual disability. However, the bill is still going through a committee and may take time to pass. 

While the Tennessee Supreme Court wrote in a previous ruling that they “have no business executing a person who is intellectually disabled.” They applied these statutes to inmates awaiting sentences. Once his temporary reprieve expires on April 9, they will assign him a new execution date. However, the governor has the power to commute his sentence. A powerful union of 150 legal, faith, and community groups have come together to support Payne’s clemency. There is no process to protect or exempt Pervis Payne from execution. On April 9, his clemency will end.

To read more and sign the petition, please go here and be sure to share the word around too.