A Memphis judge has ruled that new DNA testing results do not prove the innocence of a Tennessee man on death row. Pervis Payne’s DNA was located on multiple items in the apartment of a woman who he allegedly stabbed to death in 1987.
Payne says he was in the room that day to try to help the woman and her children, after he noticed her apartment door was open while visiting his girlfriend across the hall. His presence at the crime scene convinced the judge that there wasn’t enough evidence to question his conviction.
“The Court has reviewed the report detailing the results of the DNA analysis in this case,” Judge Paula Skahan wrote in an order filed Monday. “After doing so, the Court concludes the results are not favorable to Payne.”
An analysis found a limited amount of Payne’s DNA on multiple items, including the “hilt” of the knife used in the stabbing and a washcloth. His DNA was ruled out on every other item tested, except for a tampon, which didn’t yield clear results. It was also “eliminated” from both the handle and blade of the knife.
Payne’s attorneys say another man’s DNA was found on the knife and argue their client’s DNA would have been on the handle if he’d use it to stab people multiple times. But Skahan ruled that the evidence is “not exculpatory” and that it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of Payne’s trial.
“[T]he Court finds these arguments by Petitioner’s counsel to be purely speculative,” she writes. “The DNA analysis in this case did nothing to resolve this long-standing speculation, nor did the testing establish that anyone other than the victims and Mr. Payne were present in the victims’ apartment at the time of the offenses.”
Skahan adds that DNA profiles couldn’t be entered into a law enforcement database to find another potential suspect because the evidence had degraded while sitting in storage for more than three decades.
In a statement, Payne’s defense team reiterated their long-standing claim that Payne is innocent and noted that a key piece of evidence disappeared shortly before they received items from prosecutors for DNA testing.
“Frustratingly, the evidence most likely to have adequate samples — such as the victim’s fingernail clippings — went missing after our DNA testing request was granted,” co-counsels Vanessa Potkin and Kelley Henry said. “While there is accordingly nothing further to test at this time, we agree that the Court’s most recent order ‘should not be viewed as a comment on the merits of further litigation Mr. Payne may bring in the future.'”
The judge dismissed Payne’s latest petition, though she says her ruling shouldn’t affect the outcome of his future appeals in court.
Payne’s attorneys are also preparing an updated clemency petition for Gov. Bill Lee, which will include the DNA testing results. Lee’s office has already postponed Payne’s execution due to COVID-19 and says he will review “all aspects of the case.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.