DNA Test Results Point to Innocence of Death Row Inmate Pervis Payne

Innocence Project submitted results of DNA testing to the Shelby County Criminal Court in Pervis Payne’s case
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Photo: PervisPayne.org

This week, the Innocence Project submitted results of DNA testing to the Shelby County Criminal Court in Pervis Payne’s case pursuant to the Court’s September 16, 2020 order for testing. Governor Lee has given Mr. Payne a reprieve of execution due to the COVID-19 pandemic until April 9, 2021 and his petition for clemency is currently pending. Mr. Payne is a person with an intellectual disability who has consistently asserted his innocence from the beginning.

“The DNA testing results are consistent with Pervis Payne’s long-standing claim of innocence. Male DNA from an unknown third party was found on key evidence including the murder weapon, but unfortunately, is too degraded to identify an alternate suspect via the FBI’s database. We continue to find it frustrating and disturbing that the State still has no explanation for how key pieces of DNA evidence that could conclusively prove who committed this crime — including the victim’s fingernail clippings — have gone missing. Today’s results make crystal clear that it would be a gross miscarriage of justice for Tennessee to execute Pervis Payne.”

Pervis Payne, a Black man who lives with an intellectual disability, has steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout his 33 years on Tennessee’s death row.

Mr. Payne was just 20 when he was convicted of murdering a white woman and her child in Shelby County, Tennessee — a county with a long history of entrenched racial discrimination and violence. In fact, nearly half of Tennessee’s death row cases were tried there.

A sloppy and deeply flawed investigation of the crime; the prosecution’s unconstitutional failure to disclose exculpatory evidence and blatant reliance on racial stereotyping at trial; and the recent disappearance of crucial DNA evidence — including the victim’s fingernail clippings — collectively cast significant doubts on his conviction.

On September 16, 2020, the Innocence Project obtained a court order to test the remaining physical evidence from the crime scene.

Tuesday, DNA testing results were filed with the Court. The results are consistent with Mr. Payne’s testimony at trial — testimony which has been unwavering — and his claim of innocence.

Mr. Payne’s DNA was found only on items with which he came into contact after hearing cries of distress and entering the apartment of his girlfriend’s neighbor — one of the victims — to offer help. The lab found DNA from an unknown male on the handle of the knife used to stab the victims as well as a pair of glasses found next to the victim’s body. Those samples are insufficient to identify an alternate suspect via the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database match.

In recent troubling developments, the State is currently unable to find any of the evidence most likely to contain sufficient perpetrator DNA — including the victim fingernail scrapings. The existence of this critical evidence had been confirmed in writing by the district attorney in late July 2020. Yet, mere months later, at the September hearing on DNA testing, prosecutors declared this evidence missing, and offered no further explanation.

This missing evidence, especially in tandem with poor documentation of the crime scene and concerns that racial bias may have tainted the investigation, underscores the already significant reasons to believe Mr. Payne’s innocence and halt his execution.

In addition, nothing in his personal history or upbringing suggests that he was capable of committing this crime. Mr. Payne had no prior contact with the legal system, nor had he ever faced any disciplinary issues or used drugs. And despite the fact that the prosecution asserted that the attack was the result of a cocaine-fueled rage, Mr. Payne was never tested for the substance.

Police also failed to seriously pursue any other suspects, including the victim’s ex-husband with whom she reportedly had a volatile relationship. Given, among other deficiencies, today’s DNA testing results, the missing key evidence, and the prosecution’s failure to substantiate motive at trial, there can be no confidence in Mr. Payne’s conviction.

Lastly, the United State Supreme Court has long recognized that defendants who live with an intellectual disability are at a special risk for wrongful execution and has ruled that it is unconstitutional to apply the death penalty in these cases. Mr. Payne’s intellectual disability, independent of his consistent and steadfast claims of innocence, is a separate and compelling reason to spare his life.

The Innocence Project joins over 150 Tennessee faith, legal, legislative, and civil rights groups who are urging Governor Lee to commute Mr. Payne’s unconstitutional sentence.

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