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A judge has vacated the death sentence of Pervis Payne, the former Tennessee death row inmate with an intellectual disability accused of carrying out a violent double homicide.
Payne was convicted of murdering Charisse Christopher, 28, and her daughter Lacie, 2, in their apartment in a Memphis suburb on June 27, 1987, according to CNN.
The then-20-year-old Payne was found guilty of stabbing Christopher more than 80 times before stabbing Lacie to death as well, according to Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich. Prosecutors also said that Payne brutally stabbed Charisse’s 3-year-old son, Nicholas, who survived the attack but underwent several surgeries. Payne’s baseball cap was found in Lacie’s grip.
According to the DA’s office, Payne claimed his DNA was also found on the murder weapon because he removed the knife from Charisse’s throat in an attempt to save her.
The jury rejected Payne’s defense that he had the victim’s blood on him because he’d tried to help them.
Payne continued to maintain his innocence since his conviction.
Citing changes in a state law’s definition, on Nov. 23 Shelby County Judge Paula Skahan vacated the two death sentences handed down to Payne on the grounds that he is deemed intellectually disabled.
The former death row inmate sobbed before the judge made her ruling, as recorded by Action New 5.
“Based on the findings of the experts in this matter that he is intellectually disabled, so the death sentences are hereby vacated or set aside,” said Skahan.
Payne will be subject to a resentencing hearing.
According to Payne’s attorneys, Payne has an IQ of 68, while the district attorney stated his IQ was measured at 78 at the time of his 1988 trial.
Payne's intellectual disability prevented him from accomplishing simple tasks, including feeding himself until age five, and gave him trouble driving to new places, according to Innocence Project. In 2002, the US Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executions of those with intellectual disabilities are “cruel and unusual,” making them therefore unconstitutional in the eyes of the law.
But it wasn’t until last April that Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a law that amended the term intellectual disability. The amendment included intellectual disability to mean, “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning” and allows defendants to petition previous definitions made by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-5).
The previous law had defined intellectual disability as an IQ score below 70. The updated law no longer includes an IQ score as the standard.
On Nov. 18, the District Attorney’s office formally withdrew its request for a hearing on the issue of Payne’s intellectual disability and stated they’d no longer be seeking the death penalty.
“We can’t change the facts,” said Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich. “And we can’t change the law.”
“This means that the death penalty for Pervis Payne will be removed and replaced with two consecutive sentences of life in prison for the murders of Charisse and Lacie Christopher,” Weirich stated.
But Payne’s attorney, Kelley Henry, is asking that Payne serve his sentences concurrently, according to Action News 5.
“We’re asking the judge run them at the same time so that he would be eligible for parole in about six years,” said Henry. “That doesn’t mean he’d get out, but he’d be eligible.”
Last January, Payne’s case came under question after new DNA was found on the same murder weapon, as previously reported. However, the state alleged that the new evidence was not enough to exonerate Payne.
Payne’s family, who was present at Tuesday’s hearing, celebrated the news.
“I can go home and relax and know that justice has prevailed,” said Payne’s father, Elder Carl Payne, according to Action News.
“34 years of trauma and pain and fear just released themselves in that courtroom,” said Payne’s attorney, Supervisory Assistant Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry, according to CNN. “It was really just an astounding moment for all of us.”
“[Pervis] has never been arrested before the day of this tragic event and has never received a single disciplinary write-up in prison,” said Henry, according to Innocence Project. “He has a loving family and strong community support who would welcome him home.”
A resentencing hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 13.
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