Pervis Payne remains on death row despite DNA evidence, new date for execution to be set April 9

Pervis Payne has maintained his innocence for the entire 33 years of his incarceration in Tennessee. In spite of his intellectual disability and a lack of hard DNA evidence, he is once again facing the death penalty. -Photo: Innocence Project.

by Sumiko Saulson

Pervis Payne was a young man barely 20 years of age in June 1987 when the crime he was be convinced of occurred. According to court records, he said he had been waiting for his girlfriend Bobbie Thomas to come home from when he figured out something terrible had happened next door. Bobbie was out of town visiting her mother

A young Black man with an intellectual disability, he said he was stunned when he saw the bloody crime scene. Charisse Christopher and both of her very young children had been stabbed multiple times. She died, along with her 2-year-old daughter Lacie. Her 3-year-old son Nicholas barely survived. 

Pervis has consistently proclaimed his innocence over the past 33 years. He said he tried to assist Charisse and her children. Then, he heard the police sirens and he attempted to flee the scene.

Up until very recently, it looked like he was going to be vindicated. On June 22, 2020, the Innocence Project helped him to get legal assistance to file a petition to use new DNA testing technologies to find new evidence that might vindicate him. 

On Jan. 19, 2021 the evidence was presented in court. Mr. Payne’s DNA was found around the apartment on a towel and a roll of paper towels – supporting his testimony. The defense showed that while Mr. Payne’s DNA wasn’t found on the murder weapon, partial DNA of an unknown man was.

It sounded promising. Charisse Christopher had been recently divorced. She also had a boyfriend, Daryl Shanks. Perhaps the DNA could be tested against them? 

Many are giving Tennessee’s treatment of Pervis Payne the side eye. If you’ve seen Ava DuVernay’s 2019 mini-series “When They See Us,” about the since-exonerated Central Park Five, you get the gist of it. 

But soon after, the petition was dismissed by Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan, who claimed that the DNA of the unknown man was too degraded to be identified. This is the last in a series of frustrating decisions for Mr. Payne’s defense. 

According to the Innocence Project “The Shelby County District Attorney’s Office has a history of standing in the way of DNA testing in cases with questions of innocence.” With the petition dropped, Pervis Payne’s execution won’t be –  has been stayed until its rescheduling on April 9, 2021, due to stresses put on the prison system by horrible COVID-19 conditions – is back on the table. 

You don’t have to be old enough to personally recall the toxic racism of the 1980s in order to understand why so many are giving Tennessee’s treatment of Pervis Payne the side eye. If you’ve seen Ava DuVernay’s 2019 mini-series “When They See Us,” about the since-exonerated Central Park Five, you get the gist of it. 

The Reagan administration was the spawning ground that most of the ideas in Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, the 1994 Three Strikes Law and John J. Dilulio Jr’s “superpredator” myth we heard so much about during the 2016 election were born in

Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act were largely responsible for mandatory minimum sentences. The Black community was targeted disproportionately with these laws. 

Maximum sentences for crack-cocaine, a drug mostly used in the African American community, were much higher than for pure cocaine, or white community drugs like methamphetamine. In order to justify the sentence gap, the Reagan, both Bush administrations and the Clinton administration vilified Black men.

Bestselling author Sumiko Saulson writes award-winning multicultural sci-fi, fantasy, horror and Afrosurrealism. Winner of the 2017 Afrosurrealist Writer’s Award, 2016 HWA Scholarship from Hell, and 2016 BCC Voice Reframing the Other Award, their monthly series Writing While Black follows the struggles of Black writers in the literary arts and other segments of arts and entertainment. Ze is gender non-binary. Support them on Patreon and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.