Tennessee death row inmate makes rare court appearance


MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Tennessee death row inmate made a rare public appearance Friday during a court hearing about claims that he is intellectually disabled and should not be executed for the slayings of a mother and daughter more than 30 years ago.

Wearing a checkered blue sports jacket, white shirt and paisley tie, Pervis Payne listened as lawyers argued in a Memphis courtroom over a request by prosecutors to obtain prison records as part of Payne’s planned mental evaluation by a state expert.

Payne, 54, was brought to Memphis from Nashville, where has been held in a high-security prison since his conviction and death sentence for the 1987 stabbing deaths of Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie Jo. Christopher’s son, Nicholas, who was 3 at the time, also was stabbed but survived. The stabbings took place in Millington, located north of Memphis.

The last time Payne was seen outside prison was in 2007, when he attended a court hearing in Memphis.

Payne’s 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. Last year, Judge Paula Skahan ordered DNA testing on evidence in the case, including the knife used in the killings. But the DNA testing results failed to exonerate Payne.

Payne, who is Black, has always maintained his innocence. He told police he was at Christopher’s apartment building to meet his girlfriend when he heard the victims, who were white, and tried to help them. He said he panicked when he saw a white policeman and ran away.

Prosecutors argue the evidence is overwhelming against Payne, and they are fighting a May petition filed by Payne’s lawyers asking a judge to declare that he cannot be executed because he is mentally disabled. The move came after Republican Gov. Bill Lee in May signed a bill making retroactive Tennessee’s law that prohibits the execution of the intellectually disabled.

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 the new state law was passed, Tennessee had no mechanism for an inmate to reopen his case in order to press a claim of intellectual disability.

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

Payne’s petition includes reports from two experts who concluded he is intellectually disabled. Judge Skahan has ordered a mental evaluation from a state expert and she has scheduled a Dec. 13 hearing to hear lawyers’ arguments and information from experts.

Payne’s lawyer, Kelley Henry, is fighting the state’s request to use certain prison records and interview staff members at the prison. Henry and prosecutor Steve Jones agreed Friday to set aside that issue and discuss which records should be requested.

Several of Payne’s relatives attended the hearing. Payne’s sister, Rolanda Holman, said she picked out new clothes for her brother, whom she last visited earlier this year at the prison. Holman said she was happy to just make some eye contact with her brother and see him in regular clothing, looking “dapper.”

“Having seen him outside of those prison whites, it brought me to tears,” Holman said.

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