Untested DNA evidence could exonerate Pervis Payne, a 53-year-old intellectually disabled Black man on death row in Tennessee, according to a petition filed by Payne's attorneys on Wednesday. In 1988, Payne was convicted of the stabbing murder of a white woman and her 2-year-old daughter. He was sentenced to death, and is set to be executed this December.
The Innocence Project, a non-profit that works to exonerate wrongly convicted individuals, has taken on the case. They joined Payne's legal team in filing a legal petition in Shelby County Court for "testing of any and all remaining evidence that exists at the time of filing."
Payne has maintained his own account of the incident for 33 years: He went to visit his girlfriend who lived in the same apartment building as the victim, 28-year-old Charisse Christopher. As he entered, he saw an unknown man rush past him with blood on his shirt. He then came across the gruesome double murder scene and called police.
"But as police arrived, and realizing he was the only person at the scene, with the victim’s blood transferred onto his clothing, he panicked and fled," the petition states. "His fears quickly came to fruition. A police officer spotted Payne as he ran from the building, and he was the sole focus of the investigation from that point on. He was arrested within hours, and despite asserting his innocence, police failed to meaningfully investigate any of the other suspects."
DNA testing was not available at the time, and has not been performed on any items at the crime scene, including an extensively bloodstained comforter, bedsheets, and pillow — evidence that was allegedly withheld by prosecutors and only discovered by Payne's attorneys last year, according to the filing.
Prosecutors argued that Payne was on drugs and attacked the victim after she refused his sexual advances. In making the argument, they also "tapped into" racial tropes, including emphasizing the victim's "white skin" to the jury, the petition alleges. There was no evidence that Payne used drugs that day or that he had a history of drug use, according to the filing.
At the time of the trial, Payne's disability was not recognized by the court, but has since been confirmed by doctors. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities would be "cruel and unusual punishment." Past attempts for post-conviction relief based on the ruling have been denied, the filing said.
"Because of his disability, Payne was not able to fully participate in his defense and was not a strong witness on his own behalf," the Innocence Project said in an online campaign launched earlier this week on Payne's behalf.
The campaign also notes that "innocent Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than innocent white people," citing the National Registry of Exoneration.
In a statement to Inside Edition Digital, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said, "We received the defendant's petition this week. We are reviewing his allegations and preparing a response."