NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators is asking the governor to commute the sentence of a death row inmate scheduled for execution in December.
In a Friday letter to Gov. Bill Lee, the caucus said Pervis Payne, who is Black, should not be executed because he is intellectually disabled. Executing inmates with intellectual disabilities is against state law, but there is no mechanism in the law for Payne to reopen his case and prove his disability. The caucus said it will introduce a bill to fix the problem in the next legislative session, which begins in January.
In addition, the caucus said Payne, 53, might be innocent in the 1987 stabbing deaths of Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie Jo, in Shelby County.
“The prosecutors concocted a story of a drug-addled and sex-crazed Black man preying on a defenseless white woman,” the letter stated. “This narrative played into deeply held racist stereotypes in a county with a notorious history of lynching Black men for perceived insults to the ‘honor’ of white women.”
Payne has maintained his innocence. He told police he was at Christopher’s apartment building to meet his girlfriend when he heard the victims and tried to help them. He said he panicked when he saw a white police officer and ran away.
A Shelby County judge last month ordered DNA testing of a knife and other evidence in the case. Testing is ongoing and should be completed by mid-November.
Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich had argued against the DNA testing. In a statement last week, Weirich said courts have found the evidence against Payne to be overwhelming and his explanation for his actions unbelievable. Weirich also questioned the assertion that Payne is intellectually disabled and called his efforts to stop his execution “self-serving.”
News 2 is digging deeper into the impact coronavirus has had on the capital punishment process in Tennessee, including legal arguments and the emotional toll on the families of murder victims.
We have special reports on “Death Row Delayed” all day Thursday in every newscast.