Tennessee’s bishops again appeal to governor to stop upcoming execution

UPDATE: Governor grants temporary reprieve to Pervis Payne


The bishops of the three dioceses in Tennessee, Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, and Bishop David Talley of Memphis, in conjunction with the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission, have again appealed to Gov. Bill Lee “to stop another needless execution.”

In a letter to the governor dated Oct. 27, the bishops wrote that they “clearly state our strong opposition to the state carrying out the death penalty in the case of Pervis Payne scheduled for Dec. 3, 2020. Carrying out this execution does not serve the cause of justice and bucks the national trend of moving away from capital punishment.”

On Friday, Nov. 6, Gov. Bill Lee granted a temporary reprieve to Payne, an intellectually disabled man who has maintained his innocence for more than 30 years.

“I am granting Pervis Payne a temporary reprieve from execution until April 9, 2021, due to the challenges and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lee said in a written statement released Nov. 6.

It’s the second time this year Lee has granted a reprieve because of the pandemic.

Payne’s attorney, assistant federal public defender Kelley Henry, welcomed the news, saying in a statement that “this additional time will allow us to investigate Mr. Payne’s strong innocence claim, together with the Innocence Project.”

In their letter, Tennessee’s bishops note that “nationally, we have seen more than 165 people released from death row after they have been found to have been innocent of the crime for which they were convicted. Based on a human system as it is, there is always the chance that the state executes an innocent person. But even when guilt is certain, execution is not necessary to protect society.”

The bishops point out that Pope Francis as well as St. John Paul II have called for the end to the death penalty as both cruel and unnecessary.

“It is simply not necessary as the only means to protect society while still providing a just punishment for those who break civil laws,” the bishops write. “Rather than serving as a path to justice, the death penalty contributes to the growing disrespect for human life and continues a cycle of violence in society.”

In the letter, the bishops also offered their prayers for victims of crime and their families and friends, “that they might find peace and healing in God’s boundless love. We pray particularly for Charisse Christopher, a vibrant 28-year-old, and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie Jo, whose lives were tragically cut short in 1987. It is for their deaths that Mr. Payne faces execution. We also pray for Christopher’s then 3-year-old son, Nicholas, who was seriously injured in the same attack but survived.”

“We pray also for Mr. Payne that he, like all sinners, might find mercy in God’s eternal judgment,” the bishops wrote.

“We pray for the people of Tennessee, that through our elected government, we might turn to the path that respects and defends human life from its beginning at conception to its end at a natural death,” they concluded.

Payne, a Black man with an intellectual disability, was accused and sentenced to death for the murder of Christopher and her daughter in 1988, and has spent 32 years on Tennessee’s death row, during which time he has maintained his innocence.

Supported by The Innocence Project, a national organization that works to exonerate the innocent through DNA testing, Payne is still appealing for DNA testing in his case.

The Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission sent out an alert on Oct. 18 calling attention to some of the problems with Payne’s case, including the lack of DNA testing. “The office of the Shelby County District Attorney has resisted forensic examination of DNA evidence from the crime scene that has never been tested. Testing of that evidence recently ordered by a Shelby County Criminal Court Judge has not been completed. Those tests could well help prove Mr. Payne’s innocence.”

The CPPC alert also noted that, “Mr. Payne has serious and documented intellectual disabilities calling into question the very notion of justice in the way that we treat the mentally disabled. His prosecution and sentencing echoed the all too often refrain of bias in the death penalty process.”

The Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission alert reiterated the bishop’s message that the death penalty is always wrong, because “it violates the sanctity of human life and is simply not necessary as the only means to protect society while still providing a just punishment for those who break civil laws.”