The movement to free Pervis Payne celebrated a huge legal victory on Monday (Jan. 31), as Shelby County Judge Paula Skahan ruled that Payne’s two life sentences would run concurrently instead of consecutively.
The ruling means that Payne would be eligible for parole in five years.
In a statement released after the ruling, Payne’s attorney said that Skahan “considered this matter thoughtfully and deliberately and did the right thing.”
“She followed Tennessee law, which favors concurrent sentences and places the burden on the State to prove that consecutive sentencing is necessary to protect the public,” said Kelley Henry in the statement. “The Shelby County D.A. was effectively asking for a sentence of life without parole – which is not authorized under the law.”
“The plain fact,” Henry continued, “is that Pervis Payne is no threat to society and he never was.”
Skahan’s ruling is the latest development in Payne’s decades-long legal saga. 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 was scheduled to be executed in Nashville in December 2020, but Gov. Bill Lee granted a temporary reprieve. Payne’s two death sentences were changed to two life sentences following an updated law that forbids the death penalty for the intellectually disabled.
Shortly after the latest ruling, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich asked the State Attorney General’s office to appeal Skahan’s decision.
“We respectfully disagree with Judge Skahan’s interpretation of the new statute that removed the one-year statute of limitations on claims of intellectual disability,” Weirich said in a statement released Tuesday morning. “The statute does not authorize changing the original judge’s ruling that multiple sentences in the case should be consecutive.”
Members of the Free Pervis Payne Coalition reacted to both Skahan’s ruling and Weirich’s request for appeal. Bishop David Hall, General Board member of the Church of God in Christ and pastor of Temple COGIC, said the church stands with the Payne family and is asking Weirich to help expedite Payne’s release.
“(Weirich) showed some heart when she admitted the evidence in this case had been badly mishandled,” Hall said. “But we are now wondering if she will have the courage, not the political savvy, to do the right thing and let Pervis go home to his family after 40 years.”
Henry expressed gratitude to those who played a role in getting Payne off of death row, including Lee, State Rep. G.A. Hardaway and the Tennessee Legislature for “answering the call of the Tennessee Supreme Court to modernize our state’s intellectual disability law. Without them, Pervis would be facing execution.
“We are equally grateful to our broad and diverse nationwide coalition of supporters, including more than 150 faith and community leaders right here in Memphis,” Henry added.
Lead organizer of the Free Pervis Payne Coalition, Pastor Andre Johnson of Gifts of Life Ministries, said he was not surprised at Weirich’s response.
“Attorney Henry expected as much from the DA,” said Johnson. “We were elated that Judge Skahan ruled that the two life sentences should run concurrently. And of course, we are grateful that Pervis will never have to face the death penalty ever again. The judge made a just and fair determination. We will continue our fight to free Pervis Payne.”
Hall has said multiple times that the international COGIC denomination supports freeing Payne.
“I have tried to stay out of the political fray, but the DA is following the hard Republican line,” Hall said. “I commended her work in Shelby County when she attended the opening of our prison ministry.
“We are asking Amy Weirich to show evidence of a moral compass. The facts in the case, based on the evidence that was available, say Pervis Payne did not commit these heinous crimes.”
Henry reminded the public in her statement that Payne had never been arrested before and has always maintained his innocence. Testimony over two days, according to 19 witnesses, said Payne was a model prisoner, never having received one infraction, not even a minor one.
Henry did not respond directly to Weirich’s action, but said the fight to free Payne goes on.
“This journey will continue until we uncover the truth and Pervis is exonerated. We are thankful to the Innocence Project for partnering with us to help prove Pervis’ innocence.”