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Bill to Facilitate Intellectual Disability Claims From Death Row Prisoners Advances

State House and Senate committees have approved a bill that would create a procedure for Tennessee courts to hear the intellectual disability claims of some death row prisoners.

Prompted by the case of Pervis Payne — an intellectually disabled Black man who was facing execution in December before he received a reprieve due to COVID-19 concerns — the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators filed a bill aimed at preventing the execution of intellectually disabled people. As lawmakers, and Payne's attorney Kelley Henry, explained, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the execution of people with intellectual disabilities was unconstitutional. But there is not a legal procedure through which a Tennessee court can hear a person's post-conviction claim on the issue. The Tennessee Supreme Court has called for legislators to create one.

The bill filed by the Black Caucus was rejected in a subcommittee on Wednesday. But a second version of the legislation, sponsored by Republicans, was approved with nearly unanimous support in the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Criminal Justice Committee. The bill would clarify the definition of "intellectual disability" in the state code and, crucially, allow people on death row to file a motion asking a court to rule on their claim. After an amendment to the bill narrowed its application — excluding people who have already had an intellectual disability claim adjudicated — Rep. G.A. Hardaway said estimates are that the bill would apply to fewer than a dozen people on death row.

One of those people would be Pervis Payne. He was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1987 murder of a white woman named Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter Lacie Jo. Payne has always maintained his innocence and says he was a bystander who came upon the horrific scene while checking to see if his girlfriend was at her apartment across the hall. Among other things, Payne's case highlights pervasive racial disparities in the death penalty: Black people are disproportionately represented on death row, and a person is far more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white person than for killing a Black person.

In January, DNA testing found "male DNA from an unknown third party" on the murder weapon and other previously untested evidence. Payne's attorneys have argued that his intellectual disability made him particularly vulnerable to wrongful conviction and also that it makes him incompetent to be executed. His functional IQ, they say, is 68.4. The aforementioned legislation would allow him a way to seek a court hearing on that matter specifically.

Payne's reprieve expired on April 9. The Tennessee Supreme Court can now schedule a new execution date for him at any time, although it has not yet done so.

Courtesy of Nashville Scene


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