A Tennessee man who is scheduled for execution this December is asking the state to give him one more chance to prove his innocence.
Pervis Payne was sentenced to death in 1988 for stabbing to death a woman and her daughter and wounding her son. But he thinks DNA testing could clear his name.
Payne was 20 years old with no criminal record when he saw a man run out of his girlfriend’s apartment building with blood on his shirt in 1987, according to a new legal petition filed Wednesday by a team of attorneys from the Innocence Project. Then, the petition says, he saw the neighbor’s door was left open and found a young woman and her kids bleeding on the floor.
Payne, who has an intellectual disability, says he tried to help the victims, according to the petition. But when police arrived, he got spooked and fled. He thought they’d assume he was the killer, as a young Black man. Shortly after, he was charged with murder.
Now, attorneys from the Innocence Project are asking the state to test newly discovered crime scene evidence for DNA. They claim prosecutors hid untested evidence for decades, and that it was only uncovered last year during his defense team’s re-investigation into the case.
At least 26 people in the U.S. have been exonerated from death row based on DNA evidence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Payne’s attorneys have also raised concerns about the role racial profiling might have played in his case. Payne is Black, and the victims were white. At trial, prosecutors said Payne attacked Charisse Christopher and her children after she rejected his sexual advances. But his defense team says that theory was based solely on circumstantial evidence and falls into common racist tropes often used to falsely accuse Black men, including Emmett Till.
“Racism, hidden evidence and intellectual disability were a recipe for wrongful conviction for Pervis Payne,” Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potken said in a statement Wednesday morning. “Police zeroed in on Mr. Payne immediately and never investigated any other suspects. The presence of DNA belonging to someone other than Mr. Payne would support the consistent story that he has told for more than 30 years: He was an innocent bystander who came upon the crime scene.”
Payne’s attorney’s filed a motion this morning, urging the courts to test “any and all remaining evidence,” included a blood-stained comforter, sheets and pillow that have never before been tested.
They say Payne had no motive to commit the crime and that the state has failed to pursue other potential suspects, such as the woman’s abusive ex-husband and a local drug dealer who witnesses say used to visit her apartment.
Payne’s execution date has been set for Dec. 3.
Tennessee has postponed several other upcoming executions, because of COVID-19. But his attorneys say they’re not merely trying to delay the date. They believe he should be taken off of death row altogether.
“This application is not driven by a desire to unreasonably delay the execution of Mr. Payne’s sentence or the administration of justice,” they wrote. “Rather, Mr. Payne seeks to obtain conclusive proof of what he has said from the very start: He is not the person who committed this crime.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.