Photo: Innocence Project
Pervis Payne, a Black man with an intellectual disability, has spent 33 years on death row in Tennessee. And for 33 years, he has consistently said the same thing — he did not commit the crime for which has been sentenced to die.
Last year, Mr. Payne came close to being executed despite living with an intellectual disability, which would make it unconstitutional for the State to kill him. With less than a month before his Dec. 3, 2020, execution date, Mr. Payne was granted a temporary reprieve of execution by Governor Bill Lee, who attributed the delay to “challenges and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Mr. Payne’s reprieve is set to end on April 9, making the need to fight for justice in his case all the more urgent.
What happens next?
Once the temporary reprieve expires, the Tennessee Supreme Court can assign Mr. Payne a new execution date, meaning his life is still at risk. However, the governor has the power to commute his sentence.
A powerful coalition that includes 150 faith, legal, legislative, and community groups across the state of Tennessee has voiced its support for clemency for Mr. Payne, whose case has all the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction — an intellectual disability, racial bias, and crucial missing evidence.
People with intellectual disabilities are at “special risk for wrongful execution,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court, and executing someone with an intellectual disability is unconstitutional. And though the Tennessee Supreme Court has acknowledged that Mr. Payne had previously presented undisputed evidence of his intellectual disability, currently, there is no procedural mechanism to allow him to present his claims in state court where the appropriate action in his case could be taken.
But, right now, lawmakers are considering legislation first introduced by the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators that would create a process for Mr. Payne and others with intellectual disability claims to present them in state court.
If that bill passes, Mr. Payne will have a chance to present his claim and show that he never should have been on death row in the first place.
The power of the movement
Over the last year, tens of thousands of people have voiced their support for Mr. Payne in his pursuit of justice, from sharing his story on social media to writing him personal messages. And that support has made all the difference to Mr. Payne and his family during these incredibly difficult times.
“Pervis is motivated by all the support for him and he’s excited that people are finally hearing his story — the same truth he’s been telling for 33 years,” Rolanda Holman, Mr. Payne’s sister said.
For many months, Mr. Payne only knew of the growing movement in support of his case through updates from his lawyers and his sisters. But in recent months, Mr. Payne has received countless cards and letters from strangers wishing him well. The letters have helped him see for himself just how many people are supporting him beyond prison walls.
“Pervis doesn’t read too quickly, and he likes to read each one two or three times and really let it soak in,” Ms. Holman said. “He says each one is overwhelming and touching and he has to take some time to ‘chew on it for a minute.’ And when he feels down, he will read one of the letters and think about all the people who are fighting for him and that fuels his fire.”
The letters have been a particular comfort to Mr. Payne as in-person family visits at the prison have been suspended for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Sometimes ‘thank you’ doesn’t seem enough. But, I am told ‘thank you,’ although a short phrase, is the most powerful expression you can use to show gratitude. Therefore, I respectfully say THANK YOU to all who have supported Pervis and our family,” Ms. Holman said.
“I see you and am humbled by your support! Most say it takes a village to raise a child, but I’d also like to say — it takes a village to fight for justice! Thank you for being a part of our village.”
What you can do to help
Mr. Payne had no criminal record or history of drug use. He had no reason to kill Charisse Christopher or her child. And there are other plausible suspects in this case. And, perhaps most strikingly, in more than three decades on death row, he has consistently said he did not commit this crime. Mr. Payne must not be executed before he can present his claims of intellectual disability and innocence and finally have a full and fair hearing in court.
Keep using your voice to support Mr. Payne! You can support Mr. Payne by joining his team here and sharing his story on social media.
If you live in Tennessee, call Gov. Lee at 615-741-2001 to let him know you support clemency for Mr. Payne.