Inmate's 2 Death Sentences Vacated After Judge Declares Him Intellectually Disabled

Pervis Payne, who was convicted of killing a mother and daughter in 1987, had his two death sentences vacated Tuesday when a judge declared him intellectually disabled.

Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan signed the order, the Associated Press reported. Payne was convicted of fatally stabbing Charisse Christopher and Lacie Jo, her 2-year-old daughter, in Millington, Tennessee, a Memphis suburb. Nicholas, Christopher's son, who was 3 at the time, was also stabbed but survived.

Payne, who is Black, has always maintained his innocence. He told police he was on his way to meet his girlfriend at Christopher's apartment building when he heard Christopher and her children, who were white, and attempted to help them. When he saw a white police officer, he panicked and ran away, he said.

A petition had been filed by Payne's lawyers to argue that he is intellectually disabled, and they brought in an expert to examine him. Prosecutors hired their own mental health expert, saying they "could not rely solely rely on opinions of the defense experts." Their expert "could not say that Payne's intellectual functioning is outside the range for intellectual disability."

So on Friday, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said the state would no longer pursue execution.

"The Petition is supported by two expert opinions concluding that Petitioner is intellectually disabled pursuant to Tennessee law," the judge wrote in her order.

Now, Payne has two life sentences instead. Prosecutors are urging for consecutive life sentences, which would make Payne, 54, eligible for parole at age 85 at the earliest, his lawyer said. Attorney Kelley Henry is pushing for the life sentences to run together, making Payne eligible for parole sooner.

Payne hugged Henry and thanked her for arguing on his behalf.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Pervis Payne, Vacation, Death Sentences, Life Sentences
Tennessee Judge Paula Skahan on Tuesday vacated Pervis Payne's two death sentences for fatally stabbing a mother and daughter. Above, Payne sits next to his attorney, Kelley Henry, during a hearing in Shelby County Criminal Court on July 16, 2021, in Memphis. Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP, file

The case has drawn national attention from anti-death-penalty activists and includes the involvement of the Innocence Project, which argues for the use of DNA testing in cases claiming wrongful conviction. DNA tests failed to exonerate Payne.

Weirich, the district attorney, has said the evidence overwhelmingly points to Payne as the killer and her office initially contested the intellectual disability claims. A knife that was used as the murder weapon, a washcloth and other bloody items were found at the scene.

"While the evidence of Payne's guilt has never changed or weakened, the laws regarding alleged intellectual disability as it related to the death penalty have changed," Weirich told reporters Friday.

Executions of the mentally disabled were ruled unconstitutional in 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court found they violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

But until Republican Governor Bill Lee signed a bill this summer making Tennessee's law retroactive in prohibiting the execution of the intellectually disabled, Tennessee had no mechanism for an inmate to reopen a case to press an intellectual disability claim.

"The law was critical, because, for nearly a decade, the state has hid behind procedural obstacles, and the Legislature wiped those obstacles away," Henry said.

Payne had been scheduled to be put to death last December, but the execution was delayed after the governor granted him a rare, temporary reprieve because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The reprieve expired in April, but the state Supreme Court had not set a new execution date yet.

Henry and prosecutor Steve Jones are expected to present arguments in court December 13 concerning the issue of consecutive versus concurrent sentences. Henry said she continues to look for evidence that could exonerate Payne.

Payne also has received the support of clergy from the Church of God in Christ, and his family, including his elderly father Carl Payne and his sister, Rolanda Holman.

Holman said she remembers a judge sentencing her brother to death by electrocution more than three decades ago, and the judge telling Payne "may God have mercy on his soul."

"Thirty-four years later, God did have mercy on his soul," Holman said.

Pervis Payne, Kelley Henry, Death Sentences, Murder
Pervis Payne (center, facing camera) hugs lawyer Kelley Henry before a court hearing on November 23, 2021, in Memphis, Tennessee. A judge on Tuesday signed an order vacating Payne's two death sentences in the fatal stabbings of a mother and daughter in 1987. Adrian Sainz/AP Photo