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November 26, 2021

Pervis Payne has death sentences set aside (based on intellectual disability) three decades after SCOTUS affirmed them (with focus on victim impact evidence)

This local article reports on a notable development in a capital case that caught my attention because it involves a defendant who was involved in a major development in Supreme Court capital jurisprudence more than 30 years ago.  The press piece is headlined "Pervis Payne death penalty set aside, judge will decide if life sentences are concurrent or consecutive," and here are excerpts:

Rolanda Holman remembers being 13 years old, listening to the judge sentence her brother, Pervis Payne, to death by the electric chair. The judge said, “May God have mercy on his soul," Holman recalled.

Thirty-four years later, Holman and her family know that Payne won't be dying by the death penalty after Judge Paula Skahan signed an order Tuesday vacating his capital sentence....

Skahan's action came after the Shelby County District Attorney's office announced Thursday that it was dropping its pursuit of the death penalty against Payne after a state expert examined Payne and records "and could not say that Payne's intellectual functioning is outside the range for intellectual disability," according to a news release.

Both the U.S. and Tennessee supreme courts have ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute someone with an intellectual disability. In April, Tennessee legislators created a law allowing death row inmates like Payne to appeal their sentences on intellectual disability grounds. Since the court finds that Payne is a person with intellectual disability, his capital sentence must be vacated, Skahan wrote in her order....

Payne will serve two life sentences in prison for the murders of Charisse and Lacie Christopher. However, whether those sentences will be concurrent or consecutive is currently being debated.

Steve Jones, assistant district attorney, argued Tuesday that a transcript of the original sentencing 34 years ago shows the judge saying that Payne's sentences ought to be served consecutively.

That, [attorney Kelley] Henry said, would make Payne ineligible for parole until he is 85. Henry argued, however, that precedent shows the court has the discretion to rule his sentences should be carried out at the same time, which would make him eligible for parole in about six years. “Consecutive sentencing would be an effective life without parole for Mr. Payne and we suggest that would not be justice for him and his family," Henry said. "Elder Carl Payne deserves a chance to hug his son as a free man. And we will continue our fight to exonerate Mr. Payne.”

A hearing will be held Dec. 13 to determine whether the life sentences should be held consecutively or concurrently.

Payne, who is being held in Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, is convicted of the 1987 deaths of Millington woman Charisse Christopher, 28, and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie. Christopher’s 3-year-old son, Nicholas, survived multiple stab wounds in the brutal attack that took place in Christopher’s apartment.

Payne has maintained his innocence. In his 1988 trial, Payne said that he discovered the gruesome crime scene after hearing calls for help through the open door of the apartment. He said he bent down to try to help, getting blood on his clothes and pulling at the knife still lodged in Christopher's throat. When a white police officer arrived, Payne, who is Black, said he panicked and ran, fearing he would be seen as the prime suspect.

It is quite remarkable that it took newly 20 years for Payne to be moved off death row after the US Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), that the Eighth Amendment precluded the execution of the intellectually disabled.  But it is perhaps even more remarkable that this is the same defendant whose case made it all the way to the Supreme Court more than 30 years ago. In Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991), the Supreme Court reversed prior precedents limiting victim impact evidence and held "that, if the State chooses to permit the admission of victim impact evidence and prosecutorial argument on that subject, the Eighth Amendment erects no per se bar."  Is this a fitting time for the aphorism "what goes around comes around," especially if it is a capital case?

November 26, 2021 at 02:12 PM | Permalink


Looking it up, Payne was born in 1967, so is still relatively young.

Payne was scheduled to be executed last year.

"In April, Tennessee legislators created a law allowing death row inmates like Payne to appeal their sentences on intellectual disability grounds."

It might be remarkable it took so long but repeatedly there are accounts of people decades later removed from death row or even found not guilty (a recent article discussed the murder of Malcolm X and how it was determined the findings of guilt were dubious).

Regularly, procedural roadblocks are in place from people even being able to make various claims. Theoretical ability to get a commutation aside, they are blocked from relief in practice.

I don't know the specifics, but the article notes a law was passed to allow it here. And, here we go.

There is also the general fact the Payne's execution was delayed so long. That is not that uncommon. It is also not that uncommon that Supreme Court cases reject claims but ultimately the person obtains state relief. Maybe, not this long afterwards.

Still, as Justice Breyer has noted, repeatedly, long after being sentenced to die, people regularly obtain relief. He argued this as a reason not to streamline the process too much. Sotomayor has also flagged the general issue.

BTW, Tennessee did execute thirteen people since 2000, the last three by electrocution. Nicholas Sutton was the last one executed (2020) for a crime he committed in 1986. He was executed in the end, but that sort of shows the time lag factor.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 26, 2021 4:51:29 PM

"Regularly, procedural roadblocks are in place from people even being able to make various claims. Theoretical ability to get a commutation aside, they are blocked from relief in practice." Amen! Although sub "serious/weighty/important" for "various."

It shouldn't take an act of legislature for a death row inmate to have an Atkins claim addressed on the merits!!

Posted by: John | Nov 29, 2021 1:16:54 AM

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