A man who’s been on Tennessee’s death row for more than 30 years has recently seen a flurry of activity in his case.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference has joined the campaign to release Pervis Payne, and he faces a key hearing on a claim that could save him from execution.
At a rally Thursday ahead of that hearing, Dr. Charles Steele Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference delivered an impassioned press conference at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis that was part sermon part-history lesson.
“By Thanksgiving — no later than Christmas — we want to have Pervis at home to celebrate with his family. Free Pervis Payne!” he shouted. “You need to get behind this movement of Pervis Payne. You need to march right now. You need to understand what Dr. King said when he said, ‘Silence in the face of evil is evil itself.’ ”
The SCLC, founded by Dr. King, is the latest organization to ask for Payne’s release from prison. He has maintained his innocence since the brutal 1987 murders he was convicted of.
Kelley Henry, Payne’s attorney, says the SCLC joining the campaign elevates her client’s cause internationally.
“The attention that it will bring to this case, I believe, will be critical in moving the needle to convincing those who have the power to let Pervis go to move in that direction,” she said.
Henry and her team joined Pervis’s case two years ago. Since then, they have been actively pursuing his innocence claim.
Payne was sentenced to death for the fatal stabbings of a Memphis woman and her child. He does not deny being at the scene of the crime but says he went into apartment because he saw signs of trouble and wanted to help.
In January, his attorneys released the results of testing that showed another person’s DNA was also on the murder weapon. Prosecutors say the evidence does not exonerate Payne.
Simultaneously, his lawyers have been trying to get his death sentence overturned on the ground that he has an intellectual disability. Both state law and the U.S. Supreme Court bar executions of people who are intellectually disabled, but until April, when the Tennessee legislature passed a bill creating a new pathway for people to have that argument heard, his claim had not been previously adjudicated.
This morning, Payne and his lawyers are set to be in criminal court to dispute some of the state’s evidence against his intellectual disability claim.
The main hearing on that claim is set for December 13.