Pervis Payne, who faced the death penalty for 34 hears, hugs his attorney, Kelley Henry, after a Shelby County judge vacated his death sentence during a Tuesday hearing. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

When the death sentence for Pervis Payne was vacated during a Tuesday morning (Nov. 23) hearing, a shout of victory rose from Payne’s supporters, who filled the courtroom.

The proceeding was the formal declaration extending from a Nov. 18 announcement by Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich. At that time, Weirich said her office had received information that the state’s expert “could not say that Payne’s intellectual functioning is outside the range for intellectual disability.”

Executions of the mentally disabled were ruled unconstitutional in 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court found they violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

But until Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill this summer making Tennessee’s law retroactive in prohibiting the execution of the intellectually disabled, Tennessee had no mechanism for an inmate to reopen his case to press a claim of intellectual disability.

Shelby County Judge Paula Skahan (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Shelby County Judge Paula Skahan had scheduled a Dec. 13 hearing to address the intellectual disability claims. Weirich said the state has withdrawn its request for the hearing, which means the death penalty will be removed and replaced with two life sentences.

“After review of the evidence, law and expert opinions, the State stipulates the Petitioner would be found intellectually disabled,” prosecutor Steve Jones wrote in a court filing.

Pervis Payne enters the courtroom for a hearing that resulted in his death sentence being vacated. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

The moment on Tuesday when Payne walked into the courtroom was as dramatic as any made-for-television moment. He embraced his attorney, Kelley Henry, and began to weep. 

“He just kept saying, ‘Thank you,’ over and over again,” Henry said when a reporter asked what their conversation had been. “I just told him, ‘I got you.’”

Payne was found guilty of the 1987 stabbing deaths of Millington resident Charisse Christopher, 28, and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie. Christopher’s 3-year-old son, Nicholas, who was stabbed multiple times, survived the attack. Payne has maintained he did not commit the murders.

Running the life sentences consecutively would mean, in effect, life in prison without the possibility of parole for her client, Henry said. In a re-sentencing hearing set for Dec. 13, Henry will argue that Judge Skahan has the discretion to order that the two sentences be run concurrently. 

Payne, who has been incarcerated for 34 years, would be eligible in six years for parole if the sentences are run concurrently.

Weirich has designated that the sentences run consecutively. 

“We continue to look for evidence proving Pervis’ innocence,” said Henry.

Payne’s model behavior in prison warrants great consideration, Henry said, detailing an instance in which he helped a guard, who had been cut.

Payne’s sister, Rolanda Holman, said, “We are not quite over the hump yet. … But it was a good day today. We will not stop until he is a free man.”

Henry said the work will continue to free Payne.

“Pastor Carl Payne deserves to hug his son as a free man,” said Henry. 

Pervis Payne eyes his family, including his father, Pastor Carl Payne. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Pastor Payne’s emotional response reflected a spirit of gratitude for the ruling.

“Thanksgiving is this week, and we have a lot to be grateful for,” said Pastor Payne. “Never again will my son have to wake up and ask, ‘Is this the day?’ It’s been 34 years. 

“God is the only One who can wait 34 years and still be on time. God is so merciful, kind and loving…God honors truth, and the truth will come out one day.”

Payne, 54, was scheduled to be executed in December 2020, but Gov. Bill Lee granted a reprieve because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Bishop David A. Hall, one of the principal supporters of the Payne family, addressed the press conference briefly on Tuesday.

“As a member of the (COGIC) General Board, I can tell you that our Presiding Bishop will be writing a letter, addressed to the court, asking that Pervis be released as soon as possible. We are so glad of that.”

The #FreePervisPayne support rallies will continue every Wednesday at the corner of Union Avenue and McLean Boulevard.

(This story includes a report by the Associated Press.)