Governor Grants Reprieve for Pervis Payne Due to COVID-19

Gov. Bill Lee has granted a reprieve for Pervis Payne, the Black intellectually disabled man who was set to be executed for murder on Dec. 3 and has maintained his innocence for more than 30 years.

“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 says in a written statement released Friday afternoon. 

It's the second time this year Lee has granted a reprieve because of pandemic. In July, he did the same for Harold Nichols. Two other executions that had been scheduled for this year were also rescheduled by the Tennessee Supreme Court because of the virus. 

Payne was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1987 murder of a white woman named Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter Lacie Jo. But Payne has always maintained that he was an innocent bystander who came upon the horrific scene while checking to see if his girlfriend was at her apartment across the hall. A judge in September ordered DNA testing in the case on numerous pieces of evidence that had never been tested. 

Payne is also intellectually disabled, a fact his attorneys say is not in dispute but cannot currently be heard by a Tennessee court. Earlier this week, the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators filed a bill aimed at preventing the execution of condemned prisoners with intellectual disabilities by creating a procedure through which such claims could be adjudicated. The bill has the potential to save Payne's life if he is not executed by the state before it can become law.

Because he was convicted before the state adopted lethal injection as its primary execution method in 1999, Payne is able to choose between the electric chair and lethal injection. In accordance with state law, prison officials approached Payne earlier this week so he could make his choice. He declined, according to his attorney, supervising assistant federal public defender Kelley Henry, meaning that he would have been executed by lethal injection by default.

Henry responded to the governor's announcement in a written statement:

Governor Lee was right to delay Pervis Payne’s execution due to the Covid-19 crisis. Bringing witnesses into the prison is unsafe for them, the staff, and the prisoners. 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.

The U.S. Supreme Court and the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that the execution of people with intellectual disability is unconstitutional. Currently, there is no process for people with intellectual disability in Mr. Payne’s procedural posture to have their claims heard in court. We are grateful to Rep. G.A. Hardaway and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators for filing bi-partisan legislation to create such a procedure.

This additional time will also allow us to investigate Mr. Payne’s strong innocence claim, together with the Innocence Project. We are grateful to the 150 faith, legal, legislative, and community groups in Memphis and across the state that support clemency for Mr. Payne. Together with Mr. Payne’s family, we will continue the fight to prove Mr. Payne’s innocence.

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