Tennessee governor grants death row inmate Pervis Payne temporary reprieve due to COVID-19

MILLINGTON, Tenn. — A Tennessee man facing execution next month in the brutal 1987 double murder of a woman and her toddler daughter has been granted a temporary reprieve due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pervis Payne, 53, was scheduled to die Dec. 3 for the June 27, 1987, stabbing deaths of Charisse Christopher, 28, and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie Jo, in their Millington home. Christopher’s 3-year-old son, Nicholas, was also stabbed but survived.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced Friday that the execution has been delayed.

“I am granting Pervis Payne a temporary reprieve from execution until April 9, 2021, due to the challenges and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lee said in a statement.

>> Related story: Death row inmate nearing execution granted bid for DNA testing in double murder

>> Related story: Lawyers for death row inmate Pervis Payne seek to halt Dec. 3 execution for 1987 double murder

Payne’s appellate attorneys have sought to have the execution halted based on evidence that their client is intellectually disabled. Payne’s defense team, which includes lawyers from the Innocence Project, the Federal Public Defender’s Office and the Milbank firm, have also sought a stay so DNA evidence in the case could be tested.

Payne has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the 33 years since the murders, which shocked the small city of Millington. Christopher suffered 84 stab wounds, half of which were defensive wounds inflicted as she tried to protect herself and her children.

Lacie suffered nine stab wounds and Nicholas was stabbed a dozen times.

Payne, who was the boyfriend of the family’s neighbor, became a suspect when he was seen by a police officer leaving the apartment building, his clothes covered with blood. At his 1988 trial, Payne testified that he had stumbled upon the blood-soaked crime scene and had gotten blood on his body and clothing as he tried to help Christopher and the children.

He claimed he had encountered the real killer, another Black man, as he entered the building to go to his girlfriend’s apartment.

Shelby County Judge Paula Skahan ruled in September that Payne is entitled to expedited DNA testing under the state’s Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Act of 2001. The law allows DNA analysis if a court finds that:

  • A reasonable probability exists that the petitioner would not have been prosecuted or convicted if exculpatory results had been obtained through DNA analysis;
  • The evidence is still in existence and in such a condition that DNA analysis may be conducted;
  • The evidence was never previously subjected to DNA analysis or was not subjected to the analysis that is now requested, which could resolve an issue not resolved by previous analysis; and
  • The application for analysis is made for the purpose of demonstrating innocence and not to unreasonably delay the execution of sentence or administration of justice.

Skahan found that Payne’s attorneys had met the burden of establishing that he fit all four requirements of the law.

Read the judge’s order granting DNA testing below, courtesy of Nashville Scene.

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Payne’s defense team has also filed a federal complaint arguing that Payne is intellectually disabled and, therefore, ineligible to be put to death.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has banned the execution of people with intellectual disability, making the State’s pursuit of Mr. Payne’s execution all the more appalling,” Vanessa Potkin, a member of his defense, said in September.

The Supreme Court has ruled that executing an intellectually disabled person violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. According to Payne’s bid for relief, Tennessee has its own law forbidding the execution of mentally disabled defendants.

The law does not allow people to reopen their cases if they were sentenced to death prior to the law going into effect, however. Tennessee Rep. G.A. Hardaway, chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, had announced that he would submit a bill in the next legislative session to close that loophole.

Read Payne’s federal complaint seeking to halt his execution below.

That legislation was introduced last week by the caucus, according to the Innocence Project. Though inspired by Payne’s case, the proposed law was not initially expected to impact the condemned inmate because he was scheduled for execution before the 2021 legislative session’s January start date.

That has now changed with Lee’s decision to push back Payne’s scheduled execution.

House Bill 0001 will be the first bill filed when the session begins, the Daily Memphian reported.

Hardaway told the newspaper the bill would “provide (a) path through the courts for Mr. Payne to address the intellectual disability issue and prevent an unjust murder” by the state.

Watch Nicholas Christopher and his family speak about the murders of his mother and baby sister below in a clip from Investigation Discovery’s “Impact of Murder.” Watch the full episode about the Christopher murders here.

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Kelley Henry, a federal public defender on Payne’s team, thanked the Black Caucus for filing the bill.

“For 33 years, the person who actually did these murders has walked free,” Henry told the paper. "I believe that to the very core of my soul, and that is a path that we will continue to pursue.

“But I also think that it is important for everyone to know that this bill is so important on its own because it simply is enforcing the Constitution in the U.S. and it will prohibit the unconstitutional taking of a life in the state of Tennessee, and that is a victory for all.”