Clemency efforts on behalf of Tennessee death-row prisoner Pervis Payne (pictured) are surging, as a petition on his behalf by The Innocence Project had collected more than 600,000 signatures by March 26, 2021 and social media campaigns supporting his cause continue to attract increasing attention worldwide.

Payne’s claims of innocence, intellectual disability, and racial bias have resonated with supporters from numerous religious, legal, and civil rights organizations, including the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, the ACLU of Tennessee, Bend the Arc, the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Tennessee Catholic Bishops, Tennessee Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, the Tennessee Disability Coalition, and the Ben F. Jones chapter of the National Bar Association. Notable public figures such as civil rights advocate Martin Luther King III and former federal judge and prosecutor Ken Starr and celebrities such as actress Alyssa Milano have joined the call asking Governor Bill Lee to commute Payne’s death sentence.

In addition to the Innocence Project petition, a video on TikTok supporting his cause had received more than 9.3 million views as of March 29.

In response to efforts by state prosecutors to execute Payne without review of his claim that he is ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability, the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators introduced legislation in both houses of the legislature that would create a mechanism by which Payne and others could litigate those claims. The bills, prefiled last November while Payne was facing a December 3, 2020 execution date, were formally introduced in February and are currently pending in committee. Citing coronavirus concerns, Governor Lee granted Payne a reprieve until April 9, 2021.

While the expiration of the reprieve has added urgency to Payne’s appeal for clemency, no new execution date has been scheduled.

A defect in Tennessee procedural law prevents death-row prisoners from petitioning the Tennessee courts to consider claims that they are intellectually disabled if their convictions became final before the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to execute individuals with intellectual disability. In February 2020, the Tennessee Supreme Court granted prosecutors’ applications to set execution dates for Payne and fellow death-row prisoner Byron Black, despite the fact that both have IQs in the intellectually disabled range. Citing coronavirus concerns, the court later stayed Black’s execution and Governor Lee granted Payne a reprieve until April 9, 2010.

Payne has consistently maintained his innocence in the murder of Charisse Christopher and her two-year-old daughter. He says he heard cries for help from Christopher’s apartment and came upon the gruesome crime scene. During the course of trying to aid Christopher, he said, he touched the knife that was still lodged in her throat and got her blood on his clothes. Recent DNA testing supports Payne’s account. It found that Payne’s DNA was present on the knife, but not on the handle where an unidentified man’s DNA was detected. That man’s DNA profile was not sufficiently complete to run through a national DNA database and Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan said the presence of the unidentified man’s DNA was not sufficient to prove Payne’s innocence.

Payne also asserts that his conviction is tainted by racial bias and pervasive prosecutorial misconduct. In December 2019, when a court order provided defense counsel access to evidence held by the county clerk’s office, the defense for the first time discovered the existence of a blood-stained comforter, bedsheets, and pillow. Assistant federal defender Kelley Henry, one of the lawyers who represents Payne said, “[t]he prosecutors illegally hid this evidence for three decades. That’s just wrong.”

At trial, prosecutors characterized Payne — a pastor’s son who had no prior record, no history of drug use, and no history of violence — as a sexually predatory Black man, high on drugs, who attacked a white woman. Martin Luther III, son of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in an op-ed, “This racist trope echoed powerfully before a jury in a county where large numbers of Black men were lynched for perceived affronts to white women.”

Henry said the attention garnered by Payne’s case is unlike any other case she has seen. “To have over half a million signatures on our petition is just astounding, but it speaks to the injustice in the case and how it’s resonating with people,” she said. “They can understand the outrage that we could possibly execute someone who’s innocent and disabled when racism played a key role in landing them on death row.” Henry cautioned that some of the attention may be a result of a misconception, erroneously reported by some commentators, that the expiration of the reprieve on April 9 meant that Payne would face execution on that date.

In addition to his innocence and misconduct claims, Payne has sought to overturn his death sentence based on intellectual disability. He is awaiting legislative action on HB 1 and SB 1236 to provide a legal procedure for him to present evidence to the courts in support of that claim.


Katherine Burgess, From TikTok to MLK III: The move­ment to keep Pervis Payne off death row gains momen­tum, Memphis Commercial Appeal, March 30, 2021; Samantha Max, Tennesse House Considers Bill To Prevent The Execution Of People With Intellectual Disabilities, WPLN, Nashville Public Radio, March 10, 2021; Martin Luther King III, Martin Luther King III: Gov. Bill Lee must take path of love and com­mute death sen­tence of Pervis Payne, Memphis Commercial Appeal, March 12021.