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Pervis Payne & Sedley Alley Cases Highlight issues of Intellectual Disability and Possible Innocence

The Fight Over Tennessee’s Death Penalty Goes On

The cases of Pervis Payne and Sedley Alley highlight issues of intellectual disability and possible innocence

By Steven Hale, May 19, 2021

Nashville Scene - Pervis Payne was less than a month away from his Dec. 3 execution date when Gov. Bill Lee called it off. Prison officials had already come to see Payne on death row to ask him to choose between lethal injection and the electric chair. When Lee granted Payne a temporary reprieve on Nov. 6, he didn’t cite the serious and longstanding questions about Payne’s guilt or what his attorneys say is well-documented intellectual disability — the reprieve came “due to the challenges and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

There was little reason to believe that the governor would have stopped the execution if not for the virus ravaging the world. He has allowed four executions to proceed since taking office in 2019 and has apparently been unmoved by calls for mercy or arguments about a punishment so arbitrary that two researchers in 2018 dubbed it the “death penalty lottery.” But in the months since Payne saw his name taken off the execution calendar, his attorneys — and an increasingly large base of supporters — have continued to highlight the profound problems with his case.

Payne was sentenced to death in 1988 for the murder of a white woman named Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter Lacie Jo. Prosecutors portrayed him as a drug-using and violent predator who was looking for sex. It’s an allegation as old as America — a sex-crazed Black man accused of attacking a white woman — and it came in Shelby County, the jurisdiction with the most recorded lynchings in the state’s history and a disproportionate number of death sentences. But Payne has always maintained his innocence, saying that he came upon the horrific scene while checking to see if his girlfriend was at her apartment across the hall.

His attorneys have long argued that Payne’s intellectual disability made him particularly vulnerable to wrongful conviction. And in January, they received information they said bolstered his innocence claim. DNA testing on previously untested evidence from the crime scene, including the murder weapon, found “male DNA from an unknown third party.” The attorneys went on to say that the DNA was “too degraded to identify an alternate suspect via the FBI’s database.” But it cast more doubt on the conviction that sent Payne to death row more than 30 years ago.

At the same time, Payne’s legal team is pursuing his intellectual disability claim. An effort that began in November came to fruition last month when the state legislature passed a bill that would give Payne and a small number of other men on death row the ability to ask a court to decide whether they meet the criteria for intellectual disability. The governor signed the bill into law, and earlier this month Payne’s attorneys filed a petition in Shelby County Criminal Court asking a judge to declare him ineligible for execution based on the constitutional prohibition against executing intellectually disabled people. Several state religious and political leaders have called on Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich not to contest the matter. She hasn’t shown such an inclination previously. Her office opposed Payne’s request for the testing that turned up another man’s DNA.

While Payne’s legal team and his family fight to stop him from being executed, another team of lawyers is working on behalf of a man who already was. Sedley Alley was executed in 2006 for the brutal 1985 rape and murder of Suzanne Collins. Alley confessed to the crime, but attorneys argue that his case has all the signs of a false confession. He told many people in the years after his conviction that he had no memory of the crime.

“If I did do it, I deserve what I get,” Alley reportedly told his daughter April before the execution. “But I don’t remember doing it.”

Believing he was innocent, Alley’s attorneys asked the courts and eventually then-Gov. Phil Bredesen to order DNA testing in his case before putting him to death. Those requests were denied. But Alley’s advocates vowed to continue seeking the truth.

“God help the people in this process if the DNA proves he didn’t do it,” said Kelley Henry, the Nashville-based assistant federal public defender who represented Alley, according to The Tennessean. “We will test the DNA.”

Thirteen years after Alley was executed, his daughter and a legal team including attorneys from the Innocence Project — which has also taken up Payne’s case — announced their renewed effort to see their goal through. They also sought relief from a Shelby County court and from the governor, asking for DNA testing in the case. In November, a Memphis judge dismissed the petition, saying the Alley estate lacked standing to file for the testing. Earlier this month, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upheld that decision.

It’s been more than a year since the state of Tennessee executed someone. But the fight over the past and future of the state’s death penalty goes on.


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