A coalition of victims’ and civil rights groups, churches and professional organizations held a press conference Monday at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to urge District Attorney General Amy Weirich to permit DNA testing in the death penalty case of Pervis Payne.
Payne was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death in February 1988 of the June 1987 killings of Charisse Christopher, 28, and her two-year old daughter. Christopher’s four-year-old son survived multiple stab wounds. Payne has always maintained he was in a nearby apartment waiting on his girlfriend at the time of the murder.
The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that helps exonerate those wrongly convicted of crimes, and Millbank LLP is representing Payne. His attorneys have maintained police focused on Payne because he was near the scene of the murder to the exclusion of other suspects and that prosecution in the trial relied on racial stereotypes. Payne had no criminal record prior to the murder with with he was charged.
Payne has since been diagnosed with an intellectual disability that prevented him from fully participating in his own defense. The U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of people with intellectual disability in Atkins v. Virginia(2002), in part because they face a special risk of wrongful conviction.
“The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that persons with intellectual disability are at a special risk for wrongful execution,” said Linda Harris, a member of the Ben F. Jones Legal Justice Task Force, one of the organizations in the coalition. “As a former police officer and Assistant United States Attorney, I appreciate the importance of DNA in a circumstantial case where an individual is claiming innocence.”
Latrena Ingram with the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association, which serves Black lawyers, announced support for a sentencing commutation for Mr. Payne.
“Support of commutation of Mr. Payne’s death sentence to life imprisonment is consistent with the mission and purpose of the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association,” Ingram said. “We seek to promote the rule of law. Mr. Payne’s execution unquestionably violates the United States Constitution because he is intellectually disabled. But the Tennessee Courts are unable to correct this error because of procedural obstacles put in place by the state legislature. The Governor has the power to correct this egregious error and commute Mr. Payne’s sentence to life imprisonment. He should do so. We urge Amy Weirich to join in that request.”
In addition to the Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association, organizations comprising the coalition include the Memphis Chapter of the NAACP, 100 Black Men of Memphis, the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, Stand for Children, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) and the National /Council of Negro Women (Memphis Chapter.)
Payne’s execution date is set for Dec. 3, 2020.