Innocents: The One Life The Pandemic May Have Saved
This is an ongoing series telling the stories of wrongful convictions in North America. Some of these stories contain content that may disturb some of you, so if you’re at all squeamish, don’t read them. To read more of these stories, please click here. If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Price and Reasonable Doubt.
I know you've heard the old cliche about the guilt of people serving time in prison. It often unfolds something like this:
Innocence Project: Man who has spent 23 years behind bars claims innocence.
Self-proclaimed comedic genius: Isn't everyone in prison innocent? lmao
While some cliches are grounded in truth, this one is not. In all my time as a prison reform activist, in all my conversations with inmates, there was only one who claimed innocence. Of dozens and dozens of men and women I got to know who were incarcerated or had done time, just one insisted he was not guilty of the crime for which he was on death row. I'm not the only one who's noticed this, either. Studies suggest that only 15% of inmates claim innocence. The vast majority admit their crimes.
I know it feels counterintuitive, and I was surprised, myself, to notice this trend among the inmates I spoke to, but the data is there. Guilty people often accept their guilt, which is why my ears perk up when I hear about someone insisting that they're innocent, especially if they keep it up for decades.
I want to tell you about one such person today. I want to talk to you about Pervis Payne. I want to talk to you about Mr. Payne because he doesn't have long to live if we don't start talking about him now.
Pervis lives, currently, in a cell barely big enough to spread his arms in Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Tennessee. He's on death row and has just narrowly avoided death for the third time.
On December 3, 2020, he was scheduled to have his last meal, say his last words and close his eyes for the last time. His father, Carl, was supposed to watch as his beloved son took his last breath in the death chamber. Payne was supposed to be getting ready for execution right now, but it appears a pandemic has gotten in the way.
On November 6, 2020, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee said,
I am granting Pervis Payne a temporary reprieve from execution until April 9, 2021, due to the challenges and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For those counting, that's 1.3 million lives lost worldwide and one saved. So far. Is that a good thing, though? Does Payne deserve to be spared, or is he a hardened killer with no respect for the sanctity of life? To find out, we're going to have to go back to 1987.
We're also going to have to stare down Occam and his razor because this story will be hard to choke down.
Pervis had only just arrived at the Hiwassee Apartments in Millington, Tennessee, when he heard the calls for help. It was mid-afternoon on June 22, and he was looking forward to meeting his girlfriend, Bobbie Thomas, a resident in the building. She was due to arrive home from Arkansas at any minute. Pervis had been to the apartments several times already that day in anticipation of her arrival. He'd left some cans of malt liquor and his overnight bag at her apartment door the last time he stopped by.
It was around 3 pm, and he was back to see if his girlfriend was home yet. He'd just been passed by a man in a hurry who dropped papers and other items as he flew by. Pervis noticed blood on the man's shirt and sensed something was not right. He picked up the scraps the stranger had dropped, slid them in his pocket and made his way up to the apartments' second floor. That's when he thought he heard a voice. Tip-toeing towards the direction of the sound, he noticed that his girlfriend's neighbour's door was ajar. He could hear it clearly, now. Someone was calling for help.
It's important to note, at this point, that Pervis Payne suffers from neurocognitive impairment. He is undisputedly intellectually disabled. With an I.Q. of 72, Payne failed to graduate high school, despite incredible effort to do so. When he took a job at the local Pizza Hut as a teen, his manager complained that he couldn't recall how to make pizzas no matter how many times his colleagues explained it to him. He was gullible, his thinking lagged, and he couldn't perform some of the most basic tasks that you and I take for granted.
Nonetheless, this never seemed to get him in trouble. In 1987, he was just twenty years old, had a clean record, a good work ethic and a good reputation. He did, at least, until he entered the neighbour's apartment on June 22, the one from which he'd heard pleas for help. It would be the first in a series of bad decisions Pervis would make that day that would end up confining him to a solitary cell in a maximum-security prison for thirty-three years.
Beyond the door, Pervis discovered a woman on the floor in a pool of blood. A butcher knife was protruding from her neck as she gasped for help. Payne took a moment to catch his breath before noticing two small children were also lying there covered in blood. One was motionless, and the other was whimpering. He rushed to the woman, who had her hand on the knife as though she was trying to pull it out. After Pervis assured her that there would be help soon, he turned toward the phone on the kitchen counter. Unfortunately for all of them, he couldn't recall the emergency number. He didn't know who to call. His intellectual disability was playing against him in every way as the day unfolded.
Giving up on the phone, Pervis turned to look at the woman on the floor once again and saw that she was still trying to get the knife out. He repeated that he'd get help as he leaned over her. He put his hand over hers and pulled on the knife handle. The two succeeded in removing the weapon but not without injury to Payne. When he'd drawn the knife out, he had sustained a small cut on his hand. Pervis didn't take much notice as his attention quickly diverted to one of the children on the floor. A three-year-old boy was still crying in the kitchen, surrounded by blood. Pervis rushed to him to explain that everything was going to be okay. He turned to leave the apartment in search of help.
Mr. Payne was just about to knock on the other doors in the building when he saw a police cruiser pull up. A white officer got out of the vehicle, and it suddenly dawned on Pervis: he's black, covered in blood and in the vicinity of a potential triple-murder. Pervis tried to run, but the officer got in Pervis' way. He asked what was going on, and that's when Payne struck the officer with his overnight bag and took flight on foot.
This story is Payne's version of events. It's the same story he told when he was interrogated by police later that day, and it's the story he has maintained since. Little has changed about his account in thirty-three years.
I know what you're thinking, though, because I thought the same thing when I first heard his account. It's wild and unbelievable and violates Occam's razor with ferocity. It feels like a tall tale until, of course, you get the rest of the information.
Police entered the apartment just a few moments after Pervis fled the scene. Inside, they would find all three victims. Charisse Christopher, 28, and her two-year-old daughter, Lacie Jo, were already deceased, while little Nicholas, who was just three, was injured but alive. Between the three of them, they had been stabbed 84 times. Payne's baseball cap was on the little girl's arm, and his fingerprints were found in multiple locations in the apartment. They were on the phone, the kitchen counter and the cans of malt liquor he left in the apartment. Also recovered from the scene were bloodied items, including bedding, the knife, a stuffed animal, fingernail clippings and other things.
Later, when police located Pervis hiding in the attic of an ex-girlfriend's home, they would recover the items he'd picked up after a man dropped them outside the scene of the crime. Among them were a needle and cocaine residue.
Let's break it down to the facts. We have a man soaked in blood, whose fingerprints are all over the scene. He has a cut on his hand and freely admits to handling the murder weapon. He left his cans of malt liquor inside the apartment and his baseball cap around the deceased child's arm. He couldn't call 911 because he forgot the number and when police arrived, he assaulted one and ran.
The prosecution's narrative of the events of June 22, 1987, suggests that a drug-crazed Pervis had spent the day drinking and doing drugs and driving around town with friends looking at pornographic magazines. When he arrived at the apartment building and noticed Charisse in her apartment, he pushed himself on her and, when she shut down his advances, he lost his temper and killed the little family.
Regardless of whether you believe the prosecution's version of events, he sounds like a guilty man, no? Would you conclude what law enforcement did? That Pervis Payne killed Charisse Christopher, her daughter Lacie Jo and seriously injured her son Nicholas?
Occam's razor says the simplest explanation is often the right one, and here, the simplest explanation is that Pervis Payne did it.
The thing is, though, we're applying a philosophical tool to a life-and-death situation. No matter which way it may seem, we have to back it up with facts, and there are some particularly curious facts about this case.
For instance, there's the fact that other witnesses claim to have seen the same man run from the scene that Pervis did. He was a black man and, according to witnesses, had been seen going in and out of Charisse's apartment on several occasions. These same witnesses also claim to have heard this man arguing with Charisse a few times.
There's the fact that everyone who knew Pervis testified that he didn't do drugs or drink, ever. The police refused to run a drug test on Pervis when they arrested him because they said he didn't seem to be under the influence.
There's the fact that a crime with 84 stab wounds indicates emotion. You know, the sort of emotion that comes from a relationship of some kind. The kind of firey, uncontrollable emotion that is usually only reserved for adults in sexual relationships. Pervis was not in a sexual relationship with Charisse. There was, however, an ex-husband who was known to have physically abused Charisse before. During the initial investigation, the ex was ruled out because he was locked up at the time. However, later, it was discovered that he was locked up in a minimum-security prison where it was not uncommon for inmates to leave for the day and come back. It was entirely possible for this man to have committed the crime.
There's also the inescapable fact that Pervis was not like other people. Someone like you or I would have understood the danger of leaving fingerprints at the scene of a murder. We would have avoided touching the knife at all costs. We would have called the police right away, and we would have recalled the number to dial. Someone like you or me would have knocked on neighbour's doors, so there were witnesses to your attempts at helping. But Pervis was intellectually disabled. Pervis couldn't think it through as easily as you or I might. What might seem like a no-brainer to you or me would be difficult for Pervis to recall or understand. And so this case gives us a peculiar feeling. When we hear Payne's account of what happened, we want to roll our eyes and exclaim, "Yeah, right! No one is that clumsy!" but the thing is, Pervis was, and Pervis is. And yet, despite all of his mental sho