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.”
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.
“[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.