After over three decades of maintaining his innocence, death row inmate Pervis Payne is moving closer to receiving an execution date — despite activist-collected evidence that could prove his innocence. Payne was arrested and charged with murder for killing a woman and her 2-year-old child in Millington, Tennessee. But Payne maintains that he wasn't even there for the murder.
In 1987, Payne was living with his parents and siblings. According to his statement at the time, he was waiting for girlfriend, Bobbie Thomas, at her Millington apartment when he stumbled upon the homicide of her neighbor, Charisse Christopher, and her two-year-old daughter Lacie Jo. Both were found stabbed to death, while Christopher’s three-year-old son Nicholas survived. Payne, who has an intellectual disability, was later convicted of the murders in February 1988 and put on death row.
But over the past 33 years, he has stood by his original statement: He wasn’t the one who killed Christopher and her child. Now, activist organizations are rallying behind him to prove his innocence and have him released from death row.
Over the course of his sentence, Payne’s legal team has hit several roadblocks while seeking clemency — despite evidence that, at the very least, creates ample reasonable doubt. For one, the DNA on the murder weapon at the crime scene was never tested until September of 2020, so there's no proof of Payne coming in contact with the murder weapon before he was convicted and put on death row. According to the Innocence Project, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich allegedly blocked any DNA testing from occurring on evidence found at the crime scene until last late last year.
When the test was finally conducted, it revealed that an unknown man’s DNA was found on the murder weapon. Still, the additional DNA wasn’t enough to commute Payne’s sentence and was considered too degraded to charge another suspect with the homicides, with Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan stating that “Nothing exonerated Pervis Payne. Nothing.” Skahan later dismissed any additional testing on the DNA discovered.
“The Court concludes the results are not favorable to Mr. Payne,” Skahan wrote in a released statement on January 25. “The Petitioner argues the absence of his DNA from several of the items tested supports his trial testimony, but Mr. Payne’s DNA is not entirely absent from the apartment,” highlighting that his DNA was found on a washcloth in Christopher’s bathroom.
But Payne's case is anything from clear-cut, and activists are continuing to point out that a lot of this has to do with him being a Black man accused of murdering a white woman in the '80s. When Payne was initially scheduled to be executed on December 3, 2020, which was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it provided a renewed opportunity to prove his innocence. In recent weeks, as his new execution date approaches, social media users have rallied behind Payne, with the hashtags #PervisPayne and #JusticeForPervisPayne, calling for the courts to revisit the specifics of the case, including possible bias from the prosecution. Many — including the Innocence Project — continue to argue that prosecutors and arresting officers must be investigated for explicit anti-Blackness and the use of racial stereotypes used during his trial.
Activist Martin Luther King III penned an op-ed in the Tennessean pleading with Gov. Lee to grant Payne clemency and detailing the racial bias associated with Payne's arrest and trial.
"The prosecutor casted Payne as a hypersexual Black man looking for a white woman to assault, going so far as to refer to her 'white skin.' This racist trope echoed powerfully before a jury in a county where large numbers of Black men were lynched for perceived affronts to white women," King wrote earlier this month.
Payne's reprieve expires on April 9, 2021. There is currently a change.org petition circulating to take him off death row.