NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has granted a death row inmate a temporary reprieve from execution.
Lee issued a short statement Friday afternoon saying he is granting a reprieve to Pervis Payne until April 9 "due to the challenges and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic."
Payne is the fourth inmate to receive a reprieve this year because of the virus. Lee granted one in July to Harold Nichols, and the Tennessee Supreme Court issued two earlier reprieves to Oscar Smith and Byron Black.
Payne had been scheduled to die on Dec. 3 for the 1987 stabbing deaths of Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie Jo. Christopher's son, Nicholas, who was 3 at the time, also was stabbed but survived. Payne, who is Black, told police he was at Christopher's apartment building to meet his girlfriend when heard the victims, who were white, and tried to help them. He said he panicked when he saw a white policeman and ran away.
Shelby County Judge Paula Skahan ruled in September that DNA tests on the knife used as a murder weapon, a washcloth and other evidence must be performed. Skahan decided the evidence should be sent to a California laboratory hired by defense attorneys to perform expedited testing at no cost to the state. Results of the DNA tests are pending.
At the time of Payne's trial, DNA testing of evidence was unavailable, and no testing has ever been done in his case. A previous request for DNA testing in 2006 was refused on the basis of a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling that has since been overturned.
Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich fought the DNA request. Even if another person's DNA was found on the evidence, it would not exonerate Payne because there would be no indication of when the other person's DNA was left, she has said.
For 30 years, Payne "has been trying to run from what he did that day," Weirich said in October.
Payne's attorneys have also said he should not be executed because he is intellectually disabled, and the U.S. Supreme Court has said that executing those with intellectual disabilities violates the U.S. Constitution.
State law does not have a way for people who were already convicted to reopen their cases and prove an intellectual disability. The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators has vowed to change that, prefiling a bill earlier this week that would give Payne and others a chance to prove their disabilities in court.
Lee was right in delaying the execution, said Kelley Henry, a lawyer for Payne.
"Bringing witnesses into the prison is unsafe for them, the staff, and the prisoners," Henry said in a statement, referencing the pandemic. "This additional time will give the Tennessee Legislature the opportunity to pass bi-partisan legislation to allow Mr. Payne's and others' claims of intellectual disability to be heard in court."