MEMPHIS (TN) -- Pervis Payne walked into a Tennessee courtroom moments before a judge released him from death row. He hugged his lawyer, and wept.
Payne was sentenced to death for the 1987 murders of a mother-and-daughter. He held Kelley Henry close and thanked her because he is intellectually disabled.
Henry said that Henry hugged him and thanked him for his kindness after Tuesday's hearing in Memphis. "I told Henry it was okay, 'I got'."
Paula Skahan, Shelby County Criminal Court Judge, signed an order to vacate Payne's death sentences from more than 30 years earlier. Payne was convicted of murder in the stabbing deaths Charisse Christopher, her 2-year-old daughter Lacie Jo, and her mother in Memphis' suburb of Millington. Nicholas, Christopher's 3 year-old son, was also stabbed, but survived.
After Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich announced Friday, that the state would no longer pursue execution plans, the judge took action. A prosecutors-hired expert "couldn't say that Payne is incapable of intellectual functioning within the range of intellectual disability."
Payne's lawyers filed a petition alleging that Payne is intellectually disabled. They also brought in an expert to examine Payne.
The judge stated in her order that "the Petition is supported" by two expert opinions that concluded that Petitioner was intellectually disabled under Tennessee law.
Payne is now facing two life sentences. His lawyer stated that Payne is facing two consecutive life sentences. This would make him ineligible for parole until he reaches 85. Henry wants the life sentences to run simultaneously, so Payne may be eligible for parole sooner.
Payne, a Black man, has always maintained that he is innocent. Payne told police that he was visiting Christopher's apartment to meet his girlfriend and heard about the victims who were white. He tried to help them. He claimed he panicked after he saw a white officer and ran.
This case attracted national attention from antideath-penalty activists. It also includes the involvement by the Innocence Project which advocates for DNA testing in cases of wrongful conviction. Payne was not exonerated by DNA tests.
Weirich, the district lawyer, said that the evidence strongly points to Payne being the killer. Her office initially denied the intellectual disability claims. The scene contained a knife, a washcloth, and other bloody items.
Weirich said Friday that while the evidence for Payne's guilt is not changing or weakening, the laws regarding alleged intellectual disabilities as they relate to the death penalty had changed.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executions of mentally disabled people were unconstitutional because they violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.
However, until Republican Gov. This summer, Bill Lee signed a bill making Tennessee's law against execution of intellectually disabled retroactive. Tennessee did not have a mechanism to allow an inmate to reopen the case in order to file an intellectual disability claim.
Henry stated that the law was crucial because the state had been hiding behind procedural hurdles for almost a decade and that the Legislature erased those obstacles.
Payne was scheduled to be executed last December. However, the execution was postponed after the governor granted him an unusual, temporary reprieve due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the reprieve expired in April and was not extended by the state Supreme Court, it had not yet set a new execution day.
Henry and Steve Jones, the prosecutor, are expected to make arguments in court Dec. 13. They will discuss the issue of concurrent sentences versus consecutive sentences. Henry stated that she is still looking for evidence to exonerate Payne.
Payne has also received support from clergy members of the Church of God in Christ and his family, which includes his father Carl Payne, his older sister Rolanda Holman, and his mother, Alice Holman.
Holman stated that she recalls the death by electrocution of her brother more than 30 years ago and that Pervis Payne was told by the judge, "may God have mercy upon his soul."
Holman stated, "Thirtyfour years later God had mercy on his soul."