Fight racist death row sentencing.

Take Action

  • Sign the petition to stop the execution until the DNA has been tested.

  • Spread awareness about Pervis Payne’s case by sharing his story on social media.

  • Look at statistics on Death Row sentencing by race across the country and by state using this tool. Consider how race plays a factor in this data.

Pervis Payne, a Black man who was convicted for murder 33 years ago, will be executed in December, despite DNA evidence that could prove his innocence (CNN). While the execution of an intellectually disabled person is unconstitutional, the court didn’t recognize Payne’s disability at the time of his trial (Tennessean). The Innocence Project, a legal organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, is trying to stop Payne’s execution. As of today, “375 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 21 who served time on death row” (The Innocence Project).

In 1987, Payne’s girlfriend’s neighbor and her daughter were fatally stabbed in Tennessee; the neighbor’s son was also stabbed but survived his injuries (The Washington Post). Later that day, Payne was arrested and charged with their murders and in February 1988, Payne was sentenced to be executed on December 3rd, 2020 (Commercial Appeal). For more details of Payne’s case, read The Innocence Project’s outline of his case here

The police focused on Payne in their investigation rather than following other leads in the case, such as the victim’s abusive ex-husband or another man spotted leaving the building around the time of the murder (Innocence Project). Prosecutors argued that Payne committed the murders after being rejected for sex while on drugs, but Payne had no history of drug use, no criminal record, and was widely known as a kind person. In a complaint, Payne’s attorney, Kelley Henry, notes that Payne “was convicted after the prosecution played upon racial fears and stereotypes about Black men taking drugs and looking for white women to sexually assault” (Innocence Project). Prosecutors referred to Payne’s “dark hand” versus the victim’s “white skin” (Tennessean).

Racism plays a clear role in many of the convictions of Black defendants. 57% of the U.S. prison population consists of Black and Latinx prisoners, despite the Black and Latinx demographic only comprising 29% of the total U.S. population (The Sentencing Project). Innocent Black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than their innocent white counterparts (National Registry of Exonerations).

Moreover, Payne’s trial took place in Shelby County, Tennessee, a political and cultural climate in which the public had regularly executed innocent Black people. Shelby County is one of the 25 American counties with the highest rate of lynchings between 1877 and 1950 (Lynching in America). Lynching is a form of vigilante “justice” performed by civilians instead of the judicial system, where the mobs of people, who were usually white, would gather to torture and kill those accused of crimes, who were usually Black (NAACP). Racial stereotyping has been used to justify the lynching of Black Americans for centuries (Lynching in America).

Additionally, it is unconstitutional to execute someone with an intellectual disability (Legal Information Institute). While Payne’s disability wasn’t legally recognized at the time of his conviction, he wasn’t able to fully participate in his own case (Innocence Project). Dr. Martell, who was the expert opinion in the Atkins v. Virginia case and hundreds of other cases, concluded that Payne had an intellectual disability (Innocence Project). He found that Payne’s reading, math, and memory skills are all less than the bottom 5th percentile for his age. He had impaired language functioning and was unable to finish high school, despite working hard and never having disciplinary problems. Payne’s attorney filed a complaint to prevent Tennessee from carrying out his execution until the court considers his claim that as an intellectually disabled person, his execution would be unconstitutional (Innocence Project).

On September 16, 2020, the Shelby County Criminal Court ordered DNA testing of crime scene evidence that hadn’t previously been tested in Pervis Payne’s case. Although this could prove his innocence, his execution is still scheduled for December 3rd, 2020 (Innocence Project). Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich previously opposed DNA testing in the case. The court’s opposition in Payne’s case reflects their previous treatment of death row cases with innocence claims. In 2006, Sedley Alley was executed after being denied DNA testing of evidence believed to belong to the perpetrator (Innocence Project). His daughter fought for DNA testing to posthumously prove her father’s innocence but was denied in 2019 (New York Times). Both Pervis Payne and Sedley Alley could potentially be added to the list of the 172 death-row prisoners who were exonerated of the charges justifying their execution, 90 of whom were Black (Death Penalty Information Center).

It should never be controversial to include DNA evidence in any case with an innocence claim, especially when the American criminal justice system convicts racial minorities more harshly than their white counterparts. We need to fight to ensure Payne’s execution does not take place until after DNA evidence in his case, as well as his intellectual disability claim, are taken into consideration.

Key Takeaways

  • DNA testing could prove the innocence of those wrongfully convicted decades ago- but some court systems are standing in the way.

  • Black people on trial have always been disproportionately subjected to capital punishment in America, both in the form of “vigilante justice” and through the American court system.

  • Innocent Black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people (National Registry of Exonerations).

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