Pervis Payne (Courtesy photo)

Pervis Payne, 53, has been housed on Tennessee’s death row for 33 years. Execution is set for Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.

But a growing coalition of legal allies and organizations are pushing for Gov. Bill Lee to free Payne, who has professed his innocence from the first. And the prospects of full exoneration have supporters feeling “very optimistic.”

A rally of support is planned for Saturday (Oct. 17) at the downtown Memphis I Am A Man Plaza from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m.

Federal defense attorney Kelley Henry recently got approval to have evidence tested for DNA. She has teamed up with the Innocence Project in Nashville.

“Mr. Payne’s case is tailor-made for the governor’s intervention,” said Henry. “You have an intellectually disabled man who is unable to assist in his own defense. There are openly racial overtones in the case, and systemic racial aspects imposed and perpetuated by the attorney general’s office.”

Payne’s younger sister, Rolanda Holman, was 13 when Pervis “went away.” Her mother, Bernice Payne, who lost her battle with cancer in 2005, never stopped believing that “God was going to bring Pervis home.”

A childhood photo of Pervis Payne and his sisters (l-r) Rolanda (Holman) and Tasha Payne (deceased). (Courtesy photo)

“Momma always said that, ‘God had left a witness,’” said Holman. “She would say every December, ‘Pervis is coming home next year.’ We believe it, and we believe the DNA evidence will support Bubba’s story. That’s what I call him. When I was a baby, I couldn’t say, ‘Brother,’ so I called him ‘Bubba.’ And that’s what I call him to this day.”

Payne is accused of killing Charisse Christopher, her two-year-old daughter, and leaving her four-year-old son for dead. The victims were fatally stabbed.

“We got involved because this case was a heinous miscarriage of justice,” said Attorney Kimkea Harris, of the Ben F. Jones Branch of the National Bar Association. “We want to raise the level of community awareness regarding this case because key pieces of evidence were never tested, court transcripts were rife with racial references which were improper and illegal. They were common, however in 1988.”

Harris said the Bar blames the perpetuation of “wrongful conviction of an innocent man” on a “bad attorney general” who has a record of being disciplined for lying and omitting evidence.

“Attorney General Amy Weirich has a long history of manipulating cases by lying and withholding evidence,” Harris said. “Look at what happened in the case of Nora Jones, the lady accused of killing her mother. Ms. Jones is free today because Weirich is a bad attorney general. We are going to see that she is challenged in her 2022 re-election bid.”

Weirich fired back, stating:

“For 30 years the defendant has been trying to run from what he did that day—run from what a jury sentenced him to. Countless state and federal courts have reviewed this case—including the United States Supreme Court.

“Each time, the same result: they find the evidence against the defendant overwhelming and his explanation unbelievable. That is because you can’t outrun the facts of this case…the truth about what the defendant did and how this family suffered and is still suffering. He knew full well what he was doing…The officer who quickly responded to a 911 call from victims’ neighbor saw the defendant running from the scene ‘sweating blood’…

“He admitted to being there and to holding the murder weapon…These last minute efforts are self-serving as well. The time for the defendant to finally be held responsible is long overdue.”

Holman said Weirich has consistently stood against having key items DNA-tested. She believes her brother went into the apartment to help the victims.

“Bubba’s story has never changed,” Holman said. “He went to see his girlfriend, but she was not home. He heard noise across the hall and opened the door to the gruesome scene. A knife was sticking out of the woman’s neck, and he pulled it out. That’s how he got that blood on him. He ran out when he realized the police would think he did it. Bubba has an intellectual disability, and he was only 20. Of course, he ran.”

Payne is the son of COGIC Bishop Carl Payne. He is housed at Riverbend Correctional Facility in Union City, TN.

DNA results are expected to be available by mid-November, said Henry. Additional rallies will be planned throughout the end of the year, according to youth mentor and community activist, the Rev. Kevin Brooks.