Tennessee Death Row Inmate Seeks DNA Testing, Says It Will Prove Innocence

A Tennessee death row inmate has urged a court to test his DNA, claiming it will prove his innocence.

Pervis Payne, 53, is set to be executed on December 3 for the 1987 slaying of 28-year-old Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie. Christopher's 3-year-old son Nicholas was also stabbed, but survived.

But Payne, who has an intellectual disability, has always maintained his innocence. His case has been taken on by The Innocence Project. On Wednesday, his attorneys filed a petition seeking DNA testing of evidence in his case.

The petition says police focused almost exclusively on Payne as a suspect, even though he had no prior criminal history and nothing in his background suggested he was capable of committing such a crime.

He was "a minister's son" and "came from a stable household where he presented no problems as a child or teenager," it said.

DNA testing was unavailable at the time of Payne's trial and has never been done in his case even though "it could provide scientific proof of the assailant's identity and exonerate him," it says.

Pervis Payne
Pervis Payne in Riverbend Maximum Security institution in Tennessee. PervisPayne.org

Payne's attorneys also said they had found evidence at the Shelby County Criminal Court clerk's office in December last year that had never been tested for DNA.

"The prosecutors illegally hid this evidence for three decades. That's just wrong," Payne's attorney Kelley Henry said. "But there's still time to save this man's life."

Payne is also seeking to have fingerprints from the crime scene checked against FBI and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation databases.

Payne's attorneys say his account has remained the same for three decades.

Payne, who was 20 at the time, maintains he was at the apartment building to meet his girlfriend, who lived on the same floor as Christopher, when a man in bloody shirt rushed past him.

Payne "unknowingly came upon the gruesome scene of the double-murder, entering the victims' apartment after they were stabbed; and he attempted to help the victims," the petition says.

He says he panicked and fled the scene when he realized he was the only person there when police showed up.

But prosecutors said Payne had been high on cocaine and looking for sex when he killed Christopher and her daughter in a "drug-induced frenzy."

In the petition, Payne's attorneys noted that there is no evidence that establishes Payne ever used cocaine or any other drug. It adds that his mother had urged police to test Payne for drug use when he was arrested "knowing the result would be negative" but police refused.

It also noted that the assailant and Christopher engaged in a "close-range violent struggle," and the kitchen where the victims were found was covered in blood.

"The minor amount of blood present on Mr. Payne's clothing is inconsistent with him being the perpetrator," the petition adds. "it is, however, consistent with Mr. Payne's testimony."

The petition also says Payne, a Black man, had no motive to harm Christopher or her family, but there were others who had both motive and opportunity, such as a drug dealer who she owed money to and her violent and abusive ex-husband, who had a lengthy criminal history.

Vanessa Potkin, one of Payne's attorneys, said in a statement that "racism, hidden evidence, and intellectual disability were a recipe for wrongful conviction for Pervis Payne."

Potkin, who is a post-conviction litigation director with The Innocence Project, added: "Police zeroed in on Mr. Payne immediately and never investigated any other suspects.

"The presence of DNA belonging to someone other than Mr. Payne would support the consistent story that he has told for more than 30 years: he was an innocent bystander who came upon the crime scene."

In a statement provided to Newsweek, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich said: "We received the defendant's petition this week. We are reviewing his allegations and preparing a response."