NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee death row inmate who has always claimed innocence asked the governor on Monday to commute his sentence to life in prison.
Pervis Payne, 53, is 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, was also stabbed but survived. Payne, who is Black, told police 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 said he panicked when he saw a white policeman and ran away.
Prosecutors argued at trial that Payne was high on cocaine and looking for sex when he killed Christopher and her daughter in a "drug-induced frenzy." Payne's attorneys have argued that the evidence does not support that theory.
"The stereotypes used to convict Mr. Payne are the same used repeatedly throughout history, from Emmett Till to the Central Park 5," the clemency petition to Gov. Bill Lee states.
In a statement released on Monday, Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich said courts have found the evidence against Payne is overwhelming and that, for 30 years, Payne "has been trying to run from what he did that day."
"He knew full well what he was doing," Weirich said. "The time for the defendant to finally be held responsible is long overdue."
A Memphis judge last month ordered DNA testing of a knife and other evidence in the case. Testing is ongoing, and it should be completed by mid-November, said Kelley Henry, a lawyer for Payne.
At the time of Payne's trial, DNA testing of evidence was unavailable, and no testing has ever been done in his case. Payne's request for DNA testing won the support of groups that included the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators.
In addition to Payne's claim of innocence, Payne also has said he should not be executed because he is intellectually disabled. Tennessee law forbids the execution of the intellectually disabled. However, the law does not contain a mechanism for people to reopen their cases if they were sentenced before it went into effect.
The petition Payne's lawyers sent to Lee on Monday asks the governor to at least postpone Payne's execution until lawmakers can fix that loophole. Payne also has a petition pending in federal court that asks the judge to halt his execution based on the same claims.
Since Tennessee resumed executions in August 2018 — at a pace topped only by Texas — five of seven inmates have chosen the electric chair. The last was Nicholas Sutton, executed on Feb. 20 for the 1985 murder of a fellow inmate. Two other Tennessee inmates who were sentenced to die this year had their executions postponed because of the pandemic.