Tags: dna | death penalty

DNA Still No Panacea for Exonerating the Innocent

prison photo of pervis payne
Pervis Payne remains on Tennessee's death row despite evidence showing another man's DNA on the murder weapon. (Tennessee Department of Corrections via AP)

By Tuesday, 26 January 2021 08:28 AM Current | Bio | Archive

If you were an innocent man on Tennessee's death row, languishing in a cold cell for over three decades, you might think the identification of another man's DNA on the murder weapon would be your saving grace. But you would be wrong.

Pervis Payne is a Black man with an intellectual disability. He was convicted in 1987 of stabbing Charisse Christopher and her two-year old daughter, Lacie, but he has always maintained his innocence. At the time of the trial, DNA testing did not yet exist.

According to Payne, on the day in question he was waiting for his girlfriend to meet him at her apartment when he stumbled upon the crime scene. He (understandably) panicked, but he tried to help the victims. When police arrived on the scene Payne took off, fearing he would be wrongfully pegged for the attack. He was right. Police arrested him later that day on nothing but the shoddiest of circumstantial evidence.

Payne had no criminal background and no motive for the crime. The prosecution employed racist stereotypes, painting Payne as a drug user and a hypersexual Black man as an explanation for the attack on a white woman.

Payne had no drugs in his system that day. He also had a squeaky-clean background, regularly helping his father around his church and caring for his sisters. But it didn't matter. Shelby County, one of the few counties in the country that consistently brings death penalty cases, is among the 25 counties in the country with the most recorded lynchings between 1877 and 1950.

The location of a crime continues to play an outsized role in determining who gets the death penalty in this country. Only 2% of counties bring the majority of death penalty cases, and data shows that many of these counties have long histories of lynchings. These same counties continue to predominately pursue the death penalty in cases where there is a Black defendant and a white victim – drawing obvious parallels between the two systems.

The Innocence Project has taken on Payne's case in recent years. Thank goodness for that, because the state of Tennessee is working overtime to execute him. Without the help of outside, pro bono groups like the Innocence Project, very few of the poor defendants on death row would have the ability to even try to prove their innocence.

The district attorney's office in this case worked diligently to block the testing of DNA on the murder weapon, and it isn't their first ride on that merry-go-round. In fact, Shelby County District Attorney, Amy Weirich, has a long history of working to block exculpatory evidence. She also apparently gave the defense team the wrong evidence in this case at one point, before finally handing over what the state actually had on the case.

The state scheduled an execution date for Payne last fall, and it was only delayed due to COVID-19 implications. After the delay, and a significant uphill legal battle, Payne's team finally managed to get the DNA evidence tested. So COVID could ultimately have saved this man's life.

During a recent court hearing, it was revealed that another man's DNA was, indeed, found on the murder weapon. Unfortunately, the DNA is too degraded to conclusively match it to alternate suspects in the FBI's database. Without someone else to prosecute, Weirich's office argued that the evidence cannot exonerate Payne.

First, let's remember it is only due to the state's obstruction that it took so long to test this evidence in the first place. Had they allowed the testing as soon as that technology was available, perhaps they could have caught the real killer. But that wasn't their priority. Instead, they were interested only in upholding their own power and interests.

Secondly, a defendant's innocence in this country is not predicated on their ability to prove who did the crime absent their involvement. This is an absurd and offensive argument that ought to push anyone who makes it out of any seat of power ever again. What a gross misrepresentation of our Constitution and natural rights.

Already the country has discovered one exoneration from death row for every nine executions. Four wrongful convictions have been proven from Tennessee's death row alone, and each has been hard fought, with the state constantly working to block evidence of innocence from coming to light.

Additionally, the Tennessee Black Caucus has introduced legislation that would prevent the execution of people with intellectual disabilities in general. While the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of those with such disorders in 2002, the state of Tennessee never implemented a system in which a Tennessee court could hear such claims. This is inexcusable.

Pervis Payne should be immediately released from death row, and Tennessee should be embarrassed by the state of its justice system. They are one of the only states in the country still carrying out executions at all, they're the only state to continue using the electric chair, and their rate of wrongful convictions on death row is atrocious. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee campaigned on a criminal justice reform platform but has thus far been an abysmal failure and refused to act even in the most outrageous of cases. This is a serious stain on the state.

Enough is enough.

Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read Hannah Cox's Reports — More Here.

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If you were an innocent man on Tennessee's death row, languishing in a cold cell for over three decades, you might think the identification of another man's DNA on the murder weapon would be your saving grace. But you would be wrong.
dna, death penalty
Tuesday, 26 January 2021 08:28 AM
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