DNA Testing Ordered For Tennessee Black Death Row Inmate Pervis Payne

Pervis Payne

[Pervis Payne’s Case]
The Innocence Project: “Because Mr. Payne was at the crime scene, police zeroed in on him and did not investigate other suspects, including another man Mr. Payne saw fleeing the scene and the victim’s violent ex-husband.”
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Wednesday, the Shelby County Criminal Court ordered DNA testing of crime scene evidence that has never been tested in Pervis Payne’s case. Mr. Payne, a Black man with an intellectual disability, is scheduled for execution on December 3, 2020. Vanessa Potkin, Director of Post-Conviction Litigation at The Innocence Project and a member of Mr. Payne’s legal team, which includes Milbank LLP and Nashville attorney Kelley Henry, made the following statement:

“The court’s thoughtful and reasoned decision to order DNA testing in Pervis Payne’s case is just and in line with Tennessee’s clear DNA testing law. When DNA evidence exists in a death penalty case, as it does here, it should always be tested to avoid the irreversible act of executing an innocent man. Mr. Payne never should have been put on death row because he has an intellectual disability. The U.S. Supreme Court has banned the execution of people with intellectual disability, making the State’s pursuit of Mr. Payne’s execution all the more appalling. We have been clear from the beginning that DNA testing can be completed within 60 days. DNA testing is an important piece of the puzzle in this case which has been racially-charged from the start.”

Overview of Pervis Payne’s Innocence Case Pervis

Payne is a Black man living with intellectual disability on Tennessee’s death row. Mr. Payne had no prior criminal history before being convicted of a capital crime and has maintained his innocence for more than 30 years. When he was 20 years old, Mr. Payne was visiting his girlfriend when he heard noises across the hall and went to try to help.

Because Mr. Payne was at the crime scene, police zeroed in on him and did not investigate other suspects, including another man Mr. Payne saw fleeing the scene and the victim’s violent ex-husband, according to the Innocence Project’s petition on his behalf. Mr. Payne is scheduled for execution on December 3, 2020.

On August 31, 2020, a powerful coalition — spearheaded by the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association and consisting of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, Memphis Chapter of the NAACP, the Memphis Bar Association, 100 Black Men of Memphis, Inc., National Council of Negro Women (Memphis Chapter), Stand for Children Tennessee, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH), Church of God in Christ (COGIC) National General Board Member Bishop Brandon Porter, COGIC Bishop Linwood Dillard, Jr. and COGIC Bishop David Hall, Sr., Hope Fellowship Church Pastor Dr. Timothy Jackson, Jr., Carlos Moore, President-elect of the National Chapter of the National Bar Association, and Just City — called on Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich to join the request to test the DNA evidence in Mr. Payne’s case. The groups further urged D.A. Weirich, who is opposing the DNA testing of evidence, to correct this three decades-old injustice.

The crime scene evidence indicated that the crime could have been a crime of rage by someone close to the victim, but police focused exclusively on Mr. Payne, who found the victims’ bodies. Nothing in Mr. Payne’s background or behavior suggests that he is capable of such a crime. There was no evidence that Mr. Payne used drugs and he had no criminal history as a juvenile or adult. (Petition at pp. 6, 12-13.)

However, at trial, the prosecution relied on racial stereotypes and fears, arguing that Mr. Payne, a Black man, had taken drugs and was looking for sex, and attacked and killed Charisse Christopher, a white woman, her two-year-old daughter, and non-fatally stabbed her four-year-old son. (Petition at pp. 1, 12, 15.) To make up for a lack of motive, the prosecution argued that Ms. Christopher had been sexually assaulted, a claim that was inconsistent with the crime scene, where she was discovered fully clothed. As Mr. Payne sat at the defense table, the prosecution reminded the jury of Ms. Christopher’s “white skin.” (Petition at pp. 14-15.)

Numerous pieces of evidence from the crime scene have never been tested for DNA, including a knife, a tampon, and bloodstained items. (Petition at pp. 10-11.) DNA testing, which was unavailable at the time of Mr. Payne’s trial and has not been performed any time since, could provide scientific proof of the assailant’s identity and exonerate him.

Mr. Payne’s petition describes three cases similar to his, where bystanders were convicted after coming upon a murder scene and later had their convictions overturned as a result of DNA testing. (Petition at pp. 41-43.)

Mr. Payne was only 20 years old at the time of the crime and intellectually disabled, although that fact was not recognized at the time of the trial. He has an IQ of 72 and other evidence of intellectual disability. One of the main reasons the U.S. Supreme Court barred the execution of people with intellectual disability in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) is that they present a special risk of wrongful conviction. Mr. Payne was convicted, in part, because he was unable to assist his attorneys in making his defense and he made a poor witness on his own behalf. (Petition at pp. 9-10.)

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