The national Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its president, Dr. Charles Steele, think freedom for death-row inmate Pervis Payne warrants a national movement.
“Silence in the face of evil is evil, itself,” said Steele, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a press conference at the National Civil Rights Museum. He is in Memphis in conjunction with pending developments in the case of Payne, who has an intellectual disability and has spent the last 34 years on death row for the murder of a woman and her daughter.
“In other words, if we sit by and don’t say anything, we are just as bad. We came to start a national movement in Memphis, Tennessee. I came in the spirit of Dr. King. We’re going to march in Memphis. … We’re going to free Pervis Payne.”
Payne has always maintained his innocence. In November, 2020, Gov. Bill Lee granted Payne a temporary stay of execution.
Though it’s unconstitutional to execute someone with an intellectual disability, Tennessee had no mechanism for Payne to present his intellectual disability claim until a House bill, introduced by State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, was passed in the Tennessee Legislature.
Payne’s case has sparked widespread outrage. Key evidence, which supporters maintain could have proven Payne’s innocence by DNA tests, somehow disappeared.
Steele tied Payne’s legal peril to oppressive systems with roots as deep as the “Trans-Atlantic African Slave Trade.”
“And after 401 years, you’ve got people that don’t want you to know your history,” said Steele. “Doc Rivers, who was the coach for the Philadelphia 76ers, said, ‘All these years, we have loved America, but America has never loved us back.’ America is a racist country that has never been healed.”
Thursday’ event was the prelude to a court proceeding involving Payne on Friday (July 16). Without the House bill, which passed earlier this year, Payne might have already have been executed. Lee’s stay of execution was set to expire on April 9.
“We started negotiations with Gov. Lee before the bill was drawn up,” said Hardaway. “There were other legislators involved. It was a team effort. The governor’s legal team approved the language of the bill. Then, we had to meet with our Republican colleagues on the bill. After some difficult conversations, the bill was passed.”
The law that resulted essentially does two things, Hardaway said: (1) Gives an individual with intellectual disabilities a path back to court for due process, and (2) Contains a modernized version of intellectual disabilities.
Payne’s father, Carl Payne, who was at the Thursday’s press conference, received promises from several speakers that his son would be home soon. One of those speakers was Payne’s lead attorney, Kelley Henry.
“I love my work, and I love those I represent,” said Henry. “It is such a special privilege and honor to stand up for Pervis and his family. I feel like my entire career has been a journey to get me to this place. And Mr. Payne, I promise you that Pervis will be home with you soon.”
Henry said the criminal justice system is “institutionalized white supremacy” that must be addressed, adding that the fight for justice on behalf of disadvantaged individuals is exactly where she belongs.
“I could have been a corporate lawyer, and making a lot of money,” said Henry. “But once your eyes are open, you just can’t go back.”