Prosecutor fights Tennessee death row inmate’s DNA testing request

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A district attorney in Tennessee said Thursday that she is fighting a death row inmate’s request to have a judge order DNA testing of evidence in his case.

Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich said a bag of evidence reviewed by Pervis Payne’s lawyers in an evidence property room last year came from a different case that has nothing to do with the 1987 stabbings of a woman and her daughter for which Payne was convicted and sentenced to death.

Payne is scheduled to be executed in Nashville on Dec. 3. Payne’s lawyers have argued that a Shelby County court must order the DNA testing because Payne’s case meets the requirements for testing under the law.

At the time of his trial, DNA testing of evidence was unavailable, and no testing has ever been done in his case. A previous request for DNA testing in 2006 was refused based on a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling that has since been overturned.

The evidence includes the murder weapon and numerous blood-soaked items. It also includes a pillow, a comforter and bedsheets that a Shelby County property room employee said was part of the crime scene. Payne’s lawyers reviewed the bedding in December 2019 and included it in their DNA testing petition.

Payne is also seeking to have fingerprints from the crime scene checked against FBI and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation databases.

During a news conference, Weirich said the property room employee who showed a bag containing the bedding to Payne’s lawyers made a mistake: She said that evidence was actually gathered at the scene of a 1998 slaying.

Weirich added that the judge also should not allow testing of other items besides the bedding. She said that even if another person’s DNA was found on them, it would not exonerate Payne because there would be no indication of when the other person’s DNA was left.

Weirich noted that the Tennessee Supreme Court has already ruled on DNA testing, and she said the evidence against Payne is “overwhelming.”

“There is no new evidence. They are merely trying to delay his scheduled execution,” she said.

Payne’s attorney Kelley Henry said Weirich had not told her or other lawyers representing him that the bedding was from the wrong case. She said she found out only by watching the district attorney’s news conference online.

“There is a long line of bungling in this case, leading to Mr. Payne’s wrongful conviction,” Henry said.

Payne’s lawyers have asked for a hearing before a judge.

“There is no legal barrier to testing in Mr. Payne’s case,” Henry said. “The DA should not be citing out-of-date, overruled cases.”

Payne has always maintained his innocence in the deaths of Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie Jo. Christopher’s son, Nicholas, who was 3 at the time, was also stabbed but survived.

Payne told police he was at Christopher’s apartment building to meet his girlfriend when he saw a man in bloody clothes run past him. Payne, who is African American, has said he found and tried to help the victims, who were white, but panicked when he saw a white policeman and ran away.

Prosecutors said Payne was high on cocaine and looking for sex when he killed Christopher and her daughter in a “drug-induced frenzy.” Weirich said Payne’s baseball cap was found hanging on the girl’s arm, and there was blood on his body when he was arrested.

Payne’s petition says police focused almost exclusively on him as a suspect, although nothing in his history suggested he would commit such a crime. He was a minister’s son who was intellectually disabled and never caused problems either as a child or a teenager, his lawyers say.

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