Nov. 19 (UPI) — Prosecutors in Tennessee on Thursday dropped their pursuit of the death penalty for a death row inmate seeking an appeal of the sentence due to intellectual disability.
Pervis Payne, 54, was sentenced to death in 1988 for the slayings of Charisse Christopher, 28, and her daughter, Lacie Jo, in 1987 in Shelby County. Prosecutors said he also non-fatally wounded Christopher’s 3-year-old son, Nicholas.
Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich announced her decision after a state expert examined the prisoner available records and “could not say Payne’s intellectual functioning is outside the range for intellectual disability.”
“We received this information last week, thoroughly reviewed the findings, and we met with the victims’ family this week to explain the current reality with which we are now faced. The family was not happy, but they understand,” Weirich said.
“We can’t change the facts and we can’t change the law.”
Weirich said, though, that evidence of Payne’s guilt in the slayings hasn’t changed.
His death sentence will be replaced with two consecutive life sentences.
The Tennessee General Assembly in April passed a law allowing death row prisoners to appeal their sentences on intellectual disability grounds, which Payne did.
His lawyer, Kelley Henry, welcomed prosecutors’ decision to drop their request for a hearing on Payne’s intellectual disability and thus drop its case for the death penalty.
“We are grateful to the Tennessee legislature, under Rep. G.A. Hardaway’s leadership, for passing a new law to allow Mr. Payne to present evidence of his intellectual disability in court, and to Governor [Bill] Lee for signing the bill into law,” Henry said in a statement emailed to UPI. “The D.A.’s concession will avoid years of needless litigation.”
“We look forward to Mr. Payne’s resentencing hearing. This is some measure of justice for Mr. Payne and his family, but our fight for full exoneration of this innocent man will continue.”
Payne said he is innocent of killing Christopher and her daughter.
At the time of the slayings, Payne was dating Christopher’s neighbor. He told police he found the victims’ bodies after hearing calls for help, but investigators said he committed the crimes because he was on drugs and was looking for sex. They accused him of sexually assaulting Christopher, though she was found fully clothed.
Payne was never tested for drugs after his arrest.
Defense attorneys said that once prosecutors targeted him as the suspect, they never investigated any other suspects, including Christopher’s ex-husband who allegedly had a violent past.
The attorneys said racial bias, hidden evidence and Payne’s intellectual disability prevented him from receiving a fair trial. They said prosecutors relied on stereotypes of Black men and drug use, and pointed out Christopher’s “White skin” to the jury.