Tennessee spares death row inmate who killed mother and daughter because of ‘intellectual disability’

The 54-year-old man will now face two life sentences instead

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Friday 19 November 2021 06:39
<p>File: Pervis Payne sits next to his attorney Kelley Henry during a hearing in Shelby County Criminal Court </p>

File: Pervis Payne sits next to his attorney Kelley Henry during a hearing in Shelby County Criminal Court

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A prison inmate in Tennessee will no longer face execution for killing a mother and a daughter 30 years ago because he was found to have an “intellectual disability”.

Instead, 54-year-old convict Pervis Payne will face two consecutive life sentences, Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich announced on Thursday.

The attorney said the state’s expert “could not say that Payne’s intellectual functioning is outside the range for intellectual disability.”

Execution of people with “intellectual disabilities” was ruled unconstitutional in 2002 when the US Supreme Court found they violate the Eighth Amendment.

In April this year, state legislators created a bill to allow death row inmates to appeal their sentences on grounds of intellectual disabilities. Payne’s case had been at the centre of the passing of the bill and was cited by disability advocates and legal experts.

“This language — not only by the definition that is being modernised for intellectual disabilities — but by updating and streamlining a process for moving the cases through the appeals process, justice is delivered for the victim and victim’s family sooner than later,” GA Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat and chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press on 16 April, just days before the bill was signed into law.

Governor Bill Lee signed the bill soon after on 26 April, making Tennessee’s law retroactive in prohibiting the execution of those with “intellectual disabilities”.

Shelby County Judge Paula Skahan had scheduled a 13 December hearing to address the intellectual disability claims, which Ms Weirich said the state has withdrawn. “After review of the evidence, law and expert opinions, the State stipulates the Petitioner would be found intellectually disabled,” prosecutor Steve Jones wrote in a court filing.

Payne was sentenced to death for the 1987 stabbing deaths of 28-year-old Charisse Christopher and her two-year-old daughter. Another child was also stabbed but he had survived the crime.

The Innocence Project, a criminal justice group involved in Payne’s case, tweeted that this was “an important step toward justice for Pervis, who has spent 33 years on death row.”

Payne, who is a Black man, has claimed innocence and has told the police that he was at Christopher’s apartment building to meet his girlfriend when he heard the victims, who were white, and tried to help them.

He claimed that he bent down to help when he got blood on his clothes. However, he said he panicked when he saw a white policeman and ran away.

Kelley Henry, Payne’s attorney, said her team is grateful lawmakers and the governor enacted the law prohibiting the execution of the intellectually disabled. “We look forward to Mr Payne’s resentencing hearing. This is some measure of justice for Mr Payne and his family, but our fight for full exoneration of this innocent man will continue,” the attorney said in a statement.

The district attorney general’s office met with the victim’s family who were “not happy” to learn about dropping the death penalty. “But they understand,” Ms Weirich said.

Payne was scheduled to be executed last December, but the penalty was delayed after the governor granted him a rare reprieve because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The reprieve expired in April.

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