Pervis Payne Is Removed From Death Row After Three Decades

Mr. Payne’s family said they are “so grateful,” although he will not be freed at this time

11.23.21 By Daniele Selby

Pervis Payne hugs his attorney, federal defender Kelley Henry, after a judge formally removed him from death row. (Image: Laramie Renae/ Innocence Project)

Pervis Payne hugs his attorney, federal defender Kelley Henry, after a judge formally removed him from death row. (Image: Laramie Renae/ Innocence Project)

For 33 years, the Payne family’s Thanksgiving celebrations have been tinged with an unshakeable sadness — the absence of their son, brother, and uncle, Pervis Payne. This year, the family said they have a lot to be thankful for.

On Nov. 23, just two days ahead of the holiday, Mr. Payne was formally removed from death row, where he has been wrongly imprisoned for a crime he’s always said he didn’t commit.

“Thanksgiving for me will never be the same and I am sure I am speaking for my father as well,”  said Rolanda Holman, Mr. Payne’s sister. “This will always be a monumental week from now on because that’s how I feel today. Although he is not able to come to the table and have Thanksgiving with us, it gives me such a drive and reignites my fire even more to work toward that day when he will be able to sit at the table with our family and have a good slice of turkey … it’s amazing, so amazing.”

Rolanda Holman, Pervis Payne’s sister, hugs attorney Kelley Henry following the hearing where Mr. Payne was removed from death row. (Image: Laramie Renae/ Innocence Project)

Mr. Payne had been facing execution in Tennessee, despite living with an intellectual disability that makes it unconstitutional to execute him.

“Thanksgiving for me will never be the same…”

Last week, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich finally conceded that Mr. Payne is a person with an intellectual disability, and announced it would stop pursuing the death penalty in his case. 

“When I was 13 I sat in the court and I heard the judge sentence him to death by way of the electric chair,” recalled Ms. Holman. “Today, I sat in the same court and I got an opportunity at 47 years old to hear the judge say that Pervis Payne’s death sentence has been cancelled. If that’s not celebratory I don’t know what is, so I am so grateful today.”


The district attorney’s office asked the court today to vacate his death sentence and re-sentence him to two consecutive life sentences. If its request for consecutive sentences is approved, Mr. Payne will effectively be serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

“This would be grossly unfair to Mr. Payne, who is innocent and should never have been subjected to the death penalty,” Kelley Henry of the Federal Public Defenders, Mr. Payne’s attorney, said in a statement.

Judge Paula Skahan signed the motion to set aside Mr. Payne’s death sentence on Tuesday, and said she will decide whether the sentences should run consecutively or concurrently at a later date.

Even if the judge determines that Mr. Payne should serve concurrent sentences, there is no guarantee that the parole board would ever grant Mr. Payne parole. And, because he was previously sentenced to death, Mr. Payne will not receive sentencing credit for his decades of model behavior while incarcerated.

Rev. Carl Payne, Pervis Payne’s father and federal defender Kelley Henry speak to the press following the court’s decision to remove Pervis Payne from death row. (Image: Laramie Renae/ Innocence Project)

“[Pervis] had never been arrested before the day of this tragic event and has never received a single disciplinary write-up in prison. He has a loving family and strong community support who would welcome him home,” said Ms. Henry.

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Maureen McGehee December 5, 2021 at 12:25 am Reply   

I am so happy that Pervis had his wrongful death sentence vacated. But he deserves to be exonerated. I will never understand why some prosecutors refuse to do the right thing. I actually cried when Pervis came into the courtroom. With his family behind him, he wasn’t even permitted to hug them. That to me is unforgivable and cruel. Will continue to pray for Pervis.

Elizabeth Claman November 23, 2021 at 6:51 pm Reply   

I’m heartbroken at the gross injustice of denying Pervis Payne the possibility of parole. His sentence is cruel and unusual and therefore should be overturned!

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