Death Penalty

New Tennessee law helped inmate leave death row; judge's ruling creates possibility of parole

  • Print

death row

Image from Shutterstock.

A former death row inmate in Tennessee will get a chance to seek parole as a result of a resentencing following prosecutors’ concession that he can’t be executed because of an intellectual disability.

Judge Paula Skahan ruled Monday that Pervis Payne should serve his two life sentences for murder concurrently, which would make him eligible for parole in five years, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal and a tweet by the Innocence Project.

Payne benefited from a Tennessee law, enacted in April 2021, that removed the one-year statute of limitations on inmates’ intellectual disability claims. But prosecutors contend that the law can’t be used to change the original trial judge’s ruling that Payne’s sentences should be consecutive.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia that executing a prisoner with an intellectual disability violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Payne’s lawyer, Kelley Henry, had told lawmakers that the Tennessee law was needed to protect people with intellectual disabilities who have already been sentenced to death, according to prior coverage of her March 2021 testimony by WPLN News.

Pervis Payne

Former death row inmate Pervis Payne’s legal team thinks he is innocent. Photo by the Tennessee Department of Correction via the Associated Press.

Skahan said her decision to sentence Payne concurrently was justified by his lack of a criminal record before the murders and his lack of a disciplinary record during his 34 years in prison. He also has an extensive network of family, friends and supporters who are willing to work with him on release, Skahan said.

Payne was convicted for the 1987 stabbing deaths of Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter. He was also found guilty of assault with intent to commit murder for stabbing Christopher’s 3-year-old son.

Payne has always maintained his innocence. He testified in his 1988 trial that he happened upon the murder scene after hearing cries for help through an apartment door left ajar. He tried to dislodge a knife in Christopher’s throat, staining his clothes with blood, he said.

Payne said he panicked and ran when an officer arrived.

Henry is a federal public defender profiled in an April 2021 ABA Journal article. In a statement, Henry said Skahan followed Tennessee law in her ruling.

“The plain fact is Pervis Payne is no threat to society, and he never was,” Henry said.

“Over two days, the court heard from 19 witnesses on Pervis’ behalf, including three wardens and a corrections officer who testified that Pervis cared for him when he was attacked in prison and waited with him until medics arrived. Pervis’ prison record, which spans over 2,700 pages, is unblemished,” Henry said.

Henry thanked the Innocence Project for partnering to help prove Payne’s innocence.

“Our work is not yet done. This journey will continue until we uncover the truth and Pervis is exonerated,” Henry said.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.