Eyeglasses. A bloody tampon. A towel. A knife. These are just a few of the items investigators found in Charisse Christopher’s kitchen after she and her daughter were stabbed to death in her Shelby County apartment in 1987. But Pervis Payne’s trial attorney never had them tested for DNA.
At a hearing Tuesday in Payne’s death penalty case, prosecutors and defense lawyers spent six hours debating whether to test crime scene evidence for DNA.
Payne has never denied he was there. But his attorneys say testing could prove someone else was there, too. That could be enough to overturn his sentence.
Federal Defender Kelley Henry says the science was still new and unreliable at the time of Payne’s trial. She says that’s not the case anymore.
“If you get redundant DNA results on multiple items from the crime scene to a third party who isn’t Pervis, then that’s evidence that there’s a different assailant,” Henry says. “You don’t know until you test. And, if the state believes he did it, what do they have to lose? They’ll just get more proof that he did it.”
Henry says testing could trace DNA back to someone already in the crime database, like Christopher’s now deceased, abusive ex-husband. Investigators initially ruled out Kenneth Christopher as a suspect, because he was incarcerated for aggravated assault when the murder occurred. But an employee at the prison told Payne’s defense team in a sworn declaration that some inmates were allowed to leave during the day.
DNA testing could also link evidence to another suspect through a genealogy website, liked the one that cracked the Golden State Killer case, Henry says.
Prosecutors question whether testing would clear up the questions Payne’s attorneys hope to answer, because evidence could have been touched by any number of people, from Christopher’s friends to court clerks or attorneys.
“DNA doesn’t come with a date stamp,” Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich told reporters at a press conference in July. “You do not know when it was left behind.”
Weirich has also claimed that the evidence Payne’s attorneys want to test isn’t actually newly discovered. She said it’s not even connected with Payne’s case.
“There is no new evidence, and they are merely trying to delay his execution,” Weirich said.
Henry says her team learned over the weekend that some of the evidence was, in fact, unrelated to her client’s case. However, she says, they have confirmed that 13 items did come from the crime scene.
Payne’s case has garnered national attention in recent weeks, as protests against police brutality raise questions about the role of race in every facet in America’s criminal justice system, from traffic stops to the death penalty. Payne is one of a disproportionate number of Black men who have been sentenced to death for killing a white person.
The Innocence Project has teamed up with Payne’s defense attorneys and offered to cover the cost of DNA testing. More than a dozen prominent civil rights groups, community leaders and legal associations in the Memphis area have also urged the district attorney to support testing.
Weirich argues the case has dragged on for too long and that Christopher’s family members deserve justice. But Henry says her client, who is intellectually disabled and has always maintained his innocence, deserves justice, too.
“We’ve always said racism and intellectual disability were the recipe for wrongful conviction in Pervis’ case,” she says. “The systemic racism that he and his family have experienced through 30 years of a legal system who marginalized them is heartbreaking, and they are gratified that someone’s finally listening.”
A judge says she’ll make a decision by mid-September, less than three months before Payne’s scheduled execution date.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.