Fighting for freedom after 3 decades on death row: the Pervis Payne story

Stephen Nartey March 29, 2023
Pervis Payne/Innocence Project

His life story made international headlines because of the perceived injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system. Pervis Payne has been on death row in Tennessee since 1988, after being convicted of murdering a woman and her young daughter. Despite maintaining his innocence for over three decades, Payne has been unsuccessful in overturning his conviction or sentence. This hasn’t changed the fact that his story occurred in a county with a long history of racial violence. He was the victim fit for the sacrificial service, according to the Innocence Project.

He maintains that his experience remains one of the unfortunate days of his life. On June 27, 1987, he was expecting his girlfriend when a man covered in blood ran past him. Out of curiosity, Payne walked into the building where the man had left and found the victim, Charisse Christopher, who had been stabbed 41 times and still had a knife pinned in her throat.

He assisted the victim by pulling the knife out. After checking on Ms. Christopher’s two children, he ran to call for help. However, his goodwill was interpreted otherwise by law enforcement officers, who arrested him later that day. Since then, Payne’s abode has been in prison since he started fighting for his freedom.

The case against him was largely based on circumstantial evidence and eyewitness testimony. However, new DNA evidence has since emerged and could prove Payne’s innocence. According to the Innocence Project, which is working to exonerate Payne, DNA was found on a key piece of evidence in the case: the murder weapon. The DNA on the knife does not match Payne’s DNA and instead matches that of an unknown male.

Furthermore, additional DNA testing has revealed that Payne is likely not the source of a partial DNA profile found on the victim’s pants. It belongs to an unknown male and does not match Payne’s DNA. Despite this new evidence, Payne remains on death row. His legal team is fighting for the right to conduct further DNA testing and to present the new evidence in court.

His case has drawn attention to the flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system, particularly the use of unreliable eyewitness testimony and the need for more rigorous forensic testing. The hope is that Payne will one day be exonerated and that his case will help bring about much-needed reforms in the criminal justice system.

Payne was raised in Tipton County, Tennessee. His parents were descendants who had borne the brunt of the Jim Crow system. Despite his intellectual disability, he proved himself resourceful by helping his father with his routine tasks. He defied the odds to graduate despite his troubling early childhood. The only reason he is still alive is that health officials have submitted evidence of his intellectual disability. Under the 8th Amendment, it would therefore be unconstitutional to execute him.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: March 29, 2023


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