MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — An intellectually disabled former Tennessee death row inmate will be eligible for parole in about five years after a judge re-sentenced him Monday to serve two concurrent life sentences, giving hope to Pervis Payne’s family that he could be a free man relatively soon after serving more than three decades in prison.
Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan sentenced Payne to two life sentences that will run at the same time. Payne received the new sentences after he was removed from death row by the judge in November based on decisions by two court-appointed experts that Payne, 54, was intellectually disabled and could not be executed.
Payne was convicted of first-degree murder and received the death penalty for the 1987 slayings of Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie Jo, who were repeatedly stabbed in their Millington apartment and left in a pool of blood. Christopher’s son, Nicholas, who was 3 at the time, also was stabbed but survived.
Under state law in effect at the time of Payne’s original sentencing, he’s forced to serve at least 30 years of his concurrent life sentences. His sentence in the stabbing of 3-year-old Nicolas has remained in place. Essentially, the judge’s ruling Monday means Payne is eligible for parole after serving 39 years in prison.
With 34 years already served, the judge’s decision means Payne could be released in about five years if a parole board decides he is not a danger to society, said his attorney, Kelley Henry.
If Payne were sentenced to serve the two life sentences consecutively — or one after the other — he would not have been eligible for parole until he was 85. The Shelby County district attorney’s office, which had pushed for consecutive life sentences, plans to appeal Judge Skahan’s ruling, prosecutor Steve Jones said.
The judge noted that the Christopher family has suffered tremendously since the brutal slayings. But evidence presented at a December sentencing hearing showed Payne “has made significant rehabilitative efforts,” the judge said.
“If released from custody, the defendant would have an extensive support network to assist him in his continued rehabilitation,” Skahan said during Monday’s hearing.
After the ruling, Payne hugged attorney David Fletcher, who said Payne thanked God repeatedly.
Rolanda Holman, Payne’s sister, told reporters her family was overwhelmed with emotion after years of fighting for her brother.
“Hopefully, like I always said, the next time, he will be on this side, giving his own speech,” Holman said outside the courtroom.
Payne, who is Black, has always maintained his innocence. He told police he was at Christopher’s apartment building to meet his girlfriend when he heard the mother, who was white, screaming and tried to help. He said he panicked when he saw a white policeman and ran away.
During his trial, prosecutors alleged Payne was high on cocaine and looking for sex when he killed Christopher and her daughter in a “drug-induced frenzy.” Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich has said the evidence overwhelmingly points to Payne as the killer. Her office initially contested the intellectual disability claims, but backed off after he was found mentally disabled.
Executions of the intellectually disabled were ruled unconstitutional in 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court found they violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
But until Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill this summer making Tennessee’s law retroactive in prohibiting the execution of the intellectually disabled, Tennessee had no mechanism for an inmate to reopen a case to press an intellectual disability claim. Payne’s lawyers have said the new law was critical in freeing Payne from death row.
The case has drawn national attention from anti-death-penalty activists and includes the involvement of the Innocence Project, which argues for the use of DNA testing in cases claiming wrongful conviction. DNA tests failed to exonerate Payne.
During the sentencing hearing in December, Payne’s supporters testified he was a kind, helpful person who liked to cut his neighbors’ grass, gave parishioners rides to the church where his father was a pastor, and served as a model inmate at the maximum security prison in Nashville where he has been held.
They also testified that Payne was born premature, had trouble reading and was excused from speaking during class and Sunday school because of his learning problems.
Relatives of the Christophers said the slayings destroyed their lives. During the December sentencing hearing, Kathy Hites, Christopher’s sister-in-law, said their family stopped gathering for holiday reunions and birthday parties.
“There was so much love, and it was taken away from us,” Hites said.
Henry, Payne’s lawyer, said she will continue to push for Payne’s exoneration.
Payne’s resentencing comes less than a week after Alabama executed an inmate after a divided U.S. Supreme Court rejected defense claims that the man had an intellectual disability.