With a local push as the catalyst, simultaneous demonstrations in support of death-row inmate Pervis Payne were held in several cities and towns on Wednesday. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Since a December 2020 reprieve from execution in connection with the killings of a woman and her daughter 33 years ago, death-row inmate Pervis Payne has garnered a growing number of supporters in Tennessee and several other states.

There was ample evidence of that on Wednesday, as Payne’s supporters took the streets in multiple venues around the country.

“This is the first anniversary of our movement to get Pervis Payne released,” said Pastor Andre Johnson, a Memphis-area community organizer said.

“So I said, ‘Why not reach out all over the state of Tennessee?’ Then I thought, ‘Why not reach out nationally?’ People wanted to participate outside of Memphis. I posted the Facebook link, and that’s how we coordinated a national demonstration in multiple cities.”

Supporters of Payne stood for an hour in simultaneous demonstrations in several cities and towns. Local advocates for Payne made their presence known at Union Ave. and McLean Ave. in Midtown.

Some held signs that read, “Free Pervis Payne.”

Johnson said the protest was “decentralized” to allow everyone to join the movement using his or her own individuality.

“We did not make or establish any uniform signs, but people made their own signs,” Johnson said. 

“Some were fancy, others were colorful and expressive, and then some others were just straightforward printing of the words in black: ‘Free Pervis Payne.’ That was the beauty of the demonstration. They were different signs, but they all said the same thing.”

Demonstrators carry signs pointing to various areas of concern regarding the case of death-row inmate Pervis Payne. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Payne’s attorneys are looking toward a Dec. 13 hearing. That is when they are expected to get an opportunity to establish that Payne has an intellectual disability, and therefore, is not eligible for capital punishment. 

From the very first day of his arrest and questioning, Payne has maintained that he was innocent of the stabbings, and that he ran from the scene because he was afraid.

Payne, 53, was scheduled to be executed on Dec. 3 in Nashville. Payne’s attorneys hope that he can be exonerated if his DNA is not found on evidence items, or if DNA points to another individual.

Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan has granted attorneys’ motion for DNA testing of the evidence.

Kelley Henry, Payne’s attorney, sent a statement to The New Tri-State Defender during the national demonstration on Wednesday:

“Pervis Payne’s innocence case has captured the attention of fair-minded people not only in Memphis and Tennessee, but from coast to coast,” Henry wrote. “Our country is waking up to the racism that riddles our criminal justice system: Mr. Payne’s case is Exhibit A.”

Henry said the defense is eager for the Dec. 13 hearing and the chance of “presenting evidence of Mr. Payne’s intellectual disability for the first time. The U.S. Supreme Court has said loudly and clearly that people with intellectual disability are barred from execution.”

Payne, said Henry, is “innocent and should be exonerated and freed from death row. Governor Lee, (Shelby County) D.A. (Amy) Weirich, and the courts should right this wrong, which has robbed a good man and his family of 34 years of life.”

Payne was sentenced to death in a Memphis court 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. 

Payne told police he was at Christopher’s apartment building to meet his girlfriend when he heard the victims and tried to help them. Payne has said he panicked when he saw a policeman and ran away.

His case was still under appeal when the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to execute the intellectually disabled, but he didn’t claim a disability until after his appeals were exhausted. That involved reopening his case and required a change in state law.

“It was only after it was too late that Payne’s attorneys decided to file,” Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich said earlier in an emailed statement. “The new law signed by Governor Lee allows Payne to file the petition … which he has done. It will now be up to the courts to decide, based upon the evidence presented and the law.”

Last year, a judge ruled to allow DNA testing in Payne’s case for the first time. His DNA was found on the hilt of the knife used in the killings, which matches his trial testimony that he cut himself while handling the knife as he tried to help the victims, defense attorney Henry told the court at a January hearing.

Payne’s DNA was not found on the handle although partial DNA evidence from an unknown man was. However, there was not enough DNA material to enter it into a national FBI database and attempt to match it to someone else, Henry said. Scrapings from Christopher’s fingernails, collected from the crime scene, could not be located for testing.