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Bar Affiliation & Civic Teams Urge DNA Testing in Pervis Payne Case

Pervis Payne, a Black man with intellectual disability, is scheduled for execution on December 3, 2020.

A powerful coalition spearheaded by the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association and consisting of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, Memphis Chapter of the NAACP, the Memphis Bar Association, 100 Black Men of Memphis, Inc., National Council of Negro Women (Memphis Chapter), Stand for Children Tennessee, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH), Church of God in Christ (COGIC) National General Board Member Bishop Brandon Porter, COGIC Bishop Linwood Dillard, Jr. and COGIC Bishop David Hall, Sr., Hope Fellowship Church Pastor Dr. Timothy Jackson, Jr., Carlos Moore, President-elect of the National Chapter of the National Bar Association, and Just City gathered to call on District Attorney General Amy Weirich to join the request to test DNA in the death penalty case of Pervis Payne. The groups further urged Weirich, who is opposing the DNA testing of evidence, to correct this three decades-old injustice.

“The Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association was founded in 1966 to address the unique needs of African American lawyers. However, one of its’ most important missions is to proactively and visibly advocate causes that protect and advance the rights and privileges of members, their families, and their communities and to promote the rule of law.  There is not a more important component of the rule of law than its proper application when being used to kill a human being, which is why we seek justice for Mr. Pervis Payne,” said board member and Memphis attorney, Latrena Ingram.

Mr. Payne is a Black man with intellectual disability who was convicted of killing a White woman and her daughter after the prosecution relied on racist stereotypes about Black men as hypersexual, drug-using Super Predators. He is scheduled for execution on December 3, 2020, despite a constitutional ban on executing people with intellectual disability and the existence of DNA evidence that has never been tested. Mr. Payne is represented by the Innocence Project, Milbank LLP, and Nashville attorney Kelley Henry.

This 2007 photograph depicts CDC Guest Researcher, Dr. Karidia Diallo, preparing the ABI DNA Analyzer. Image by CDC/Hsi Liu, Ph.D., MBA; James Gathany, Public Domain.

“The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that persons with intellectual disability are at a special risk for wrongful execution,” said Linda Harris, a member of the Ben F. Jones Legal Justice Task Force. “As a former police officer and Assistant United States Attorney, I appreciate the importance of DNA in a circumstantial case where an individual is claiming innocence.”

The Ben F. Jones Chapter also announced its support for a sentencing commutation for Mr. Payne. “Support of commutation of Mr. Payne’s death sentence to life imprisonment is consistent with the mission and purpose of the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association,” Ingram said. “We seek to promote the rule of law. Mr. Payne’s execution unquestionably violates the United States Constitution because he is intellectually disabled. But the Tennessee Courts are unable to correct this error because of procedural obstacles put in place by the state legislature. The Governor has the power to correct this egregious error and commute Mr. Payne’s sentence to life imprisonment. He should do so. We urge Amy Weirich to join in that request.”

Mr. Payne was 20 years old and waiting for his girlfriend at an apartment complex in Millington when he heard noises across the hall. He went to help and found Charisse Christopher and her two-year-old daughter fatally stabbed and her four-year-old son non-fatally stabbed. (See Petition for Post-Conviction DNA Analysis  https://tinyurl.com/y3gbrobk at pp. 1, 12, 15.) Because Mr. Payne was at the scene, the police zeroed in on him and did not investigate other suspects, including another man Mr. Payne saw fleeing the building and the victim’s violent ex-husband, according to the petition.

Nothing in Mr. Payne’s background or behavior suggested that he was capable of committing such a crime. There was no evidence that Mr. Payne used drugs and he had never been arrested, either as an adult or a juvenile. Although he struggled in school, and was unable to graduate from high school, he was beloved in the community and helped out at his father’s church and painting business. (Petition at pp. 6, 12-13.)

Playing on racist tropes, the prosecution painted Mr. Payne as a sexually aggressive Black man on drugs looking for a White woman to attack. The prosecution argued that Ms. Christopher had been sexually assaulted, although she was discovered fully clothed, and made repeated references to her “White skin” in front of the jury. (Petition at pp. 14-15.)

Mr. Payne seeks DNA testing of more than a dozen items of crime scene evidence that have never been subjected to DNA analysis. These include a knife, a tampon, fingernail clippings, and bloodstained items. The fingernail clippings may be the most important pieces of untested evidence because the prosecution argued at trial that the victim scratched the perpetrator in fighting him off. (Petition at pp. 10-11.)

Mr. Payne lives with intellectually disability, although that fact was not recognized at the time of trial. He has an IQ of 72 and other evidence of intellectual disability. As a person with intellectual disability, he never should have been placed on death row. The U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of people with intellectual disability in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), in part because they face a special risk of wrongful conviction. This was precisely what happened in Mr. Payne’s case: because of his disability, he was unable to assist his attorneys in making his defense and made a poor witness on the stand under intense questioning from the experienced prosecutor. (Petition at pp. 9-10.) This fact alone means that Mr. Payne should not even be facing an execution date. The Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association also called on the Governor to Commute Mr. Payne’s sentence to life imprisonment.

Addressing these systemic and state-sanctioned inequalities is, in part, why Black bar associations were created – to add a modicum of fairness to a system that has historically and statistically been unjust to Black people by fighting against race-based discrimination and stereotypes and working to promote political, social, and legal equality. Just as we have done since our founding, the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association is committed to upholding its torch in these dark times. We will work with social justice agencies to advocate, publicly educate, and participate in concerted collective efforts to eradicate racism and social injustices. We are calling to action the entire Memphis legal community to assist in these efforts.

A statement from the Executive Committee of the Memphis Bar Association can be accessed here: https://tinyurl.com/yyhopx49

More information about the Memphis organizations supporting DNA testing for Pervis Payne can be accessed here: https://tinyurl.com/y5ed9ld5

For more information about Pervis Payne’s innocence case, please visit www.pervispayne.org

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