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New bill aims to stop execution of intellectually disabled

by Travis Loller —

NASHVILLE – The first bill to be pre-filed for the upcoming legislative session in Tennessee seeks to give people with an intellectual disability, who have been sentenced to death, a chance to prove their disability and that they should not be executed.

The bill is meant to fix a glitch in state law. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled that executing a person with an intellectual disability violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and Tennessee has its own law forbidding the execution of the intellectually disabled.

However, state law does not contain a way for people to reopen their cases if they were sentenced before the law went into effect.

In a virtual news conference announcing the bill’s prefiling on Wednesday, state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation, said he hopes it will prevent the execution of Pervis Payne, who is scheduled to die on Dec. 3.

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

A Memphis judge recently ordered that DNA evidence be tested in the case, and results from that testing are expected to be released soon. In addition, Payne’s attorneys have argued he is intellectually disabled and have asked Gov. Bill Lee to postpone his execution until after the law is changed in order to let him prove his disability in court. The next legislative session begins in January.

Hardaway, who is chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, said he expects the bill to pass easily with bipartisan support.

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