Pervis Payne’s death sentence vacated; attorney to seek sentence with 2027 parole eligibility

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — After years of rallying and support from state lawmakers and celebrities, Pervis Payne will not be put to death.

Payne was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1987 murder of a Shelby County mother and daughter. Tuesday, a judge vacated the death sentence after the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office announced last week it would stop seeking Payne’s execution.

Payne has maintained his innocence for decades, but Tuesday was not a chance to prove whether he is guilty of the crime prosecutors say overwhelming evidence shows he committed. It was instead a chance to formally say he shouldn’t be put to death for that conviction.

Dressed in a black suit, Payne sobbed moments after walking into a Shelby County criminal courtroom to face a judge. Falling into the arms of his longtime attorney Kelley Henry, the hearing marked a significant turn in his case.

“Never again will Pervis Payne wake up in the morning wondering whether or not his life will be extinguished by the state of Tennessee,” Henry told reporters after the hearing.

The case stretches back decades, full of legal procedures and maneuvering, the latest coming after a Tennessee law allowed death row inmates to challenge their death sentences on grounds they live with intellectual disabilities. Using that and rulings from the U.S. and Tennessee state supreme courts, Payne’s attorney challenged his death sentence.

Late last week, District Attorney General Amy Weirich announced an expert could not disprove Payne’s intellectual disability, and that she would no longer pursue the death penalty as a result.

“I can go home and relax and know that justice has prevailed,” said Carl Payne, Pervis Payne’s father.

Immediately after court, Payne’s family spoke along with Henry.

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“We will not stop until he is a free man, and he walks through those doors,” said Rolanda Holman, Pervis Payne’s sister.

Before the end of Tuesday’s hearing, the judge ordered both sides to ready themselves for sentencing to determine how much longer Payne must spend in prison.

Both sides must now file briefs with the court, the judge said.

Kelley Henry said she would file her brief by the close of business Wednesday. Prosecutors said they would file a response by Dec. 1. A ruling would follow Dec. 8, the judge said. A re-sentencing hearing would be set for Dec. 13.

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The state argued that Payne should be sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, meaning he would not be eligible for parole until he was 85 years old.

Henry argued Payne should be sentenced to serve those terms concurrently, meaning Payne, 54, would be eligible for parole in six years.

Henry said she will continue seeking clemency on Payne’s behalf from Gov. Bill Lee.