MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Carl Payne believes his son is innocent of murder.
He believes that for 33 years, his son has been wrongfully imprisoned, facing the death penalty.
And he believes that God has allowed it, choosing this family like the biblical Queen Esther for God’s glory to be manifested.
“God allows things to happen every once in a while to let folks know I am God,” said Carl Payne, 78. “God is a god of justice, righteousness and all good and perfect gifts come from him. This is God’s plan. This I know.”
Carl Payne is the father of Pervis Payne, the Tennessee man scheduled for execution Dec. 3 for the 1987 stabbing deaths of Millington woman Charisse Christopher, 28, and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie. Christopher’s 3-year-old son, Nicholas, survived multiple stab wounds in the brutal attack that took place in their apartment building.
Pervis Payne has also maintained his innocence, but multiple appeals have been rejected over his years on death row.
During those years, his family has stood beside him, some going to their graves still saying they believed he would be freed. Their steadfastness is rooted in their Christian faith, members of the family say, a faith that Pervis Payne shares.
Now, just months before Pervis Payne’s scheduled execution, the family has had their first “victory” in the decades-long fight: A judge has granted DNA testing in the case. And, a powerful coalition of attorneys, legislators, nonprofits and faith leaders have gathered around the family to advocate for Pervis Payne.
“It’s a lot of joy happening. We’ve been asking the Lord to do it, now I’m thanking him for where he brought us from for where he brought us to,” Carl Payne said. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. We’re in that process.”
Carl Payne, 78, father of Pervis Payne who was convicted of a capital crime in 1988 and is on death row awaiting a December execution date. Recently Shelby County courts granted Payne’s motion requesting DNA analysis, giving the family renewed hope for a reversal of his 32-year-old guilty verdict.
‘Chosen for such a time as this’
Carl Payne was mowing his grass in Drummonds, Tennessee when he got a phone call that his only son was in trouble. He didn’t believe it then but rushed to the police station in nearby Millington.
Millington was the big town for the family — where you went to shop, where Carl Payne pastored a church. Today, Carl Payne remains an elder and is a superintendent in the Church of God in Christ, overseeing several churches in Tennessee.
Millington was also where Pervis Payne’s girlfriend lived in an apartment complex where a brutal crime had just occurred in the unit next to his girlfriend’s.
The white woman who lived next door to Pervis Payne’s girlfriend was dead, stabbed more than 40 times. She also had more than 40 defensive wounds. Her two-year-old daughter was also dead and her son had to be rushed to LeBonheur Children’s Medical Center with multiple stab wounds.
Pervis Payne had been there: An officer saw him leaving the apartment complex drenched in blood. When he saw the officer, Pervis Payne struck the officer with an overnight bag and ran. He was later found hiding in an ex-girlfriend’s attic. His baseball cap was found looped around the 2-year-old victim’s arm, and his fingerprints were on a beer can inside the apartment.
When Carl Payne arrived at the police station, he was allowed to see his son.
“Dad, I didn’t kill no woman,” Carl Payne recalled his son saying.
“I know you didn’t,” Carl Payne said he replied.
“I thought he’d be out of there in the next day or two, but he’s been in there 33 years,” Carl Payne said in an interview. “They want to take his life, the only son that I have.”
At trial, Pervis Payne said he heard cries and entered the apartment after the Christophers had been stabbed, where he placed his hand on the knife lodged in Christopher’s throat, trying to help. When the white police officer arrived, Payne, who is Black, said he panicked and ran, fearing he would be seen as the prime suspect.
At trial, prosecutors pointed out inconsistencies in Pervis Payne’s testimony: The door to Christopher’s apartment was locked when police arrived, meaning Payne must have locked it when he left, something that didn’t make sense for a Good Samaritan to do, they said.
And after Pervis Payne said he got blood on himself when Christopher “hit the wall,” prosecutors said, “She hit the wall while he was stabbing her to death.”
Rolanda Holman, the younger of Pervis Payne’s two sisters, was just 13 when the crime and arrest happened. To this day, she calls her brother “Bubba,” since she couldn’t pronounce “brother” as a child.
The family was naïve about the justice system, Holman said. They began praying but were convinced that her brother would be turned loose.
They told him, if you just tell the truth, they’ll set you free.
“We’re thinking as little girls, my sister and I, well Bubba will be home soon,” Holman said. “But we began to get in court and began to see the twists and turns and the things that were not right and the poor support from his defense lawyer, and we began to see something is not right here. … I had to take into consideration we had a white victim and a black man, I had to take into consideration is this a racial issue here?”
Her brother’s defense didn’t aid him like they should have, Holman said, including in responding to the racial framing and the statement about whether he had been there when Christopher “hit the wall.”
Something unique happened at trial: For the first time, victim’s impact statements were allowed. The legality of that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, changing how trials were conducted across the country.
Just as her brother’s case resulted in a significant change, Holman believes it will end with a significant change for the judicial system. Perhaps it will be the end to the death penalty, she says.
“We’ve been chosen for such a time as this,” Holman said, echoing the biblical book of Esther. “We’re chosen. That means we’ve got to keep going with it. We’re in it now. I said, ‘Bubba, we’re out here swimming now.’”
‘I want to see a miracle’
Holman hopes that when the evidence is tested for DNA, there will be “no question” that her brother is innocent.
But others say they are certain of his guilt, including the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office. Throughout his 33 years on Death Row, none of Payne’s appeals have succeeded.
The family of the Christophers, the victims, also cooperated with the prosecution at trial. The remaining members of the Christopher family did not wish to speak with The Commercial Appeal in an interview.
“For 30 years the defendant has been trying to run from what he did that day — run from what a jury sentenced him to,” Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich recently said in a written statement. “Countless state and federal courts have reviewed this case — including the United States Supreme Court. Each time, the same result: they find the evidence against the defendant overwhelming and his explanation unbelievable. That is because you can’t outrun the facts of this case — the truth about what the defendant did and how this family suffered and is still suffering. … The time for the defendant to finally be held responsible is long overdue.”
When Judge Paula Skahan ruled in September that DNA evidence should be tested, that was the first victory for the Paynes in 33 years, Holman said. The results of the tests are expected in mid-November.
Rolanda Holman, 46, talks about her brother Pervis Payne who was convicted of a capital crime in 1988 and is on death row awaiting a December execution date. Recently Shelby County courts granted Payne’s motion requesting DNA analysis, giving the family renewed hope for a reversal of his 32-year-old guilty verdict.
She called her brother after getting the news.
“Child, let me tell you,” she began. He had to get off the phone after a few moments, saying he needed to soak in the news, she said.
“My hope is right there on those boxes right now,” Holman said, referring to the boxes of evidence.
Holman and Carl Payne said they imagine Pervis Payne coming home. They imagine the joy of him being freed again, but they also imagine the sorrow of him visiting the graves of his sister Tyrasha and his mother Bernice.
Tyrasha died in June 2016, while Bernice died in July 2005.
Every New Year, Pervis Payne’s mother Bernice would say, “Pervis is coming home this year.”
Holman said she understands the reality of the looming Dec. 3 execution date. The family isn’t “so spiritual we don’t have any common sense,” she said, and they have a plan for every reality.
But, they also have “hope: The anticipation, the expectation that something good is going to happen,” she said.
For Carl Payne, as he awaits the results of the DNA testing, there is no doubt, he said.
“I want to see a miracle, and God is working that miracle out,” Carl Payne said. “We’ve never lost our focus on God. I knew God was going to get him out of here. I didn’t know it was gonna take him this long.”