The commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Million Man March on Washington D.C. brought a dedicated few to downtown’s I Am A Man Plaza to advocate for justice in the Pervis Payne death penalty case.
Payne, who has maintained his innocence for more than three decades, is scheduled for execution on Dec. 3.
More than 100 supporters gathered last Saturday (Oct. 16) as part of a growing legal and social move to halt the execution.
According to the Innocence Project, Payne was waiting for his girlfriend to return to her apartment in Millington in June 1987 when he discovered that her neighbor, Charisse Christopher, and her children had been brutally attacked.
Payne, who lives with an intellectual disability, was shocked by the bloody scene and tried to help, his supporters maintain. When the police arrived, he feared being mistaken for the attacker. And, in fact, he was arrested later that day. The following February he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
The Rev. Kevin Brooks, who organized the rally, said he hoped that the event would bring attention to the disproportionate number of African Americans imprisoned.
“Our justice system is broken,” Brooks said. “Pervis Payne and others have been unjustly treated because of the systemic racism in the criminal justice system.”
Bishop David Hall, pastor of Temple Church of God in Christ, said the justice system has failed Payne.
“There has never been a lynching in this country that the police and the judicial system did not approve of,” said Hall. “In Emmett Till’s case, the police let them go and kidnap that boy. …Giving this man a lethal injection in a case that has fallen apart is tantamount to a lynching.”
Brooks issued an urgent call to action, asking people to write letters to Gov. Bill Lee and Shelby County Atty. Gen. Amy Weirich.
“We assembled at the plaza to raise awareness in the case of Pervis Payne,” said Brooks. “He has been on death row for 33 years. There are holes in the case, and there is racial terror involved.”
COGIC Bishop Carl Payne, father of Payne, and Payne’s sister, Rolanda Holman of Murfreesboro, were at the rally.
In addition to the letter blitz, Hall said a team of legal advocates and supporters will be driving to Nashville on Oct. 27 to meet with a representative from Gov. Lee’s office.
In September, Payne’s lawyers filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee to prevent Tennessee from carrying out his execution until the state creates a procedure to adjudicate his claim that, as a person with intellectual disability, his execution would be unconstitutional.
“We will go up as a group to make our case,” said Hall. “I have been working on my statement. But we want the governor to know that to put Pervis Payne to death would be unfair and immoral.”
Shelby County Criminal Court recently ordered DNA testing of crime scene evidence that has never been tested in Pervis Payne’s case.
“It is not right to withhold evidence,” said Hall. “There was supposed to be DNA evidence against Pervis Payne. It turns out there is none. We contend that you cannot take a man’s life because of a blown case. And it is blown. There is no DNA evidence proving guilt.”
There is a “two-tiered” justice system – one for African Americans and other people of color, and the second for Caucasians, Hall said.
In the best-case scenario, he hopes that Gov. Lee will grant clemency to Payne.