Disrupting death row through art

Martha’s Vineyard Black Lives Matter and Ndume Olatushani work together to campaign against Pervis Payne being executed. 


On Saturday, Martha’s Vineyard Black Lives Matter (MVBLM) held a fundraising event called “Disrupt Death Row: Art and Justice” at the Kara Taylor Gallery in Chilmark. The paintings by Ndume Olatushani were for sale and the money raised went to the Free Pervis Payne Campaign, a movement to exonerate Pervis Payne from death row in Tennessee.

Payne was convicted in 1988 for the murder of a mother and her baby daughter, Charisse and Lacie Christopher, in Millington, Tennessee. For 34 years, Payne and his family have maintained that he is innocent. The Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted, have also joined in Payne’s case. The event ticket sales and donations were able to raise over $50,000. 

According to Carly Sousa, this case from Tennessee reached Martha’s Vineyard when Ali Sousa, her wife, found out about Payne’s story online. Ali brought up the case at the MVBLM kneeling vigils. Carly said that a core team worked on this project, but the Martha’s Vineyard community also rallied together for this cause with donations. “It kind of caught like wildfire that turned into this event,” said Carly. “We’re thrilled with how everything turned out.”

Olatushani joined the event after MVBLM reached out to him through a mutual friend. Olatushani himself was put on death row for the 1983 murder of a grocery store owner in Memphis, Tennessee. He had never been to Tennessee prior to being sent to prison. Olatushani was in the same prison as Payne and developed a friendship with him. In January of 2012, Olatushani was exonerated for the crime and became a free man. 

Now, Olatushani hopes to use his art to help Payne.

“When they said they were trying to save my friend, of course I leapt at the opportunity,” said Olatushani. This was also an extension of Olatushani’s own efforts of using his art for positive social impact.

The event was split into two main parts: A room displaying the paintings Olatushani was selling for the fundraiser, and an outdoor tent. The tent showcased Olatushani’s “Lynching Series”, which were not for sale. The art was based on photographs of the oppression African Americans faced in U.S. history.

Later in the evening, the main speakers addressed the crowd. 

Olatushani spoke about his personal experience with the criminal justice system, how evidence was fabricated against him, his refusal to take a deal since he knew of his own innocence, and the 20 years he spent in prison. Olatushani also spoke of the American criminal justice system working against minorities and the poor. “I’m here despite the system, not because of it …It works for certain people, but they don’t look like me, black or brown,” said Olatushani. “Hell, they don’t even work for poor white folks.”

Kelley Henry, Payne’s lawyer, spoke of how Payne was unjustly incarcerated. She told the crowd Payne was in town to see his girlfriend, and would later see the still breathing Christophers. Henry said Payne got blood on himself trying to help the woman, who had numerous stab wounds. Payne panicked and ran from the police after initially trying to get their help after seeing “the cop’s eyes” and realizing the officer wouldn’t believe him. Henry said noise must be made about Payne to make more change happen. 

Rolanda Holman, Payne’s sister, talked about the struggles and frustrations her family felt dealing with the justice system trying to free her brother. She said they have come too far to just give up on Payne. Her mother passed away believing in Payne’s innocence. Holman said after the execution date was set, she knew they needed to make a movement around her brother. “Our justice system has been contaminated, and I believe we are the antidote and the cure to be able to put some good back in,” said Holman. 

After Payne was arrested, the police refused to do a drug test on him, despite the department claiming drugs were involved for Payne’s actions, according to Henry. After the Innocence Project got involved, the defense team requested a DNA analysis of the evidence, which included vaginal swabs, fingernail clippings, and clothes since the murder was also alleged as a sexually motivated crime. The team was told these pieces of evidence inexplicably vanished. 

The Times reached out to the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office for comment about Payne’s case. “This case was decided not on DNA, not on drug use, and not on anyone’s skin color. It was decided on the overwhelming evidence, including his own testimony, that pointed to Pervis Payne and only Pervis Payne as the brutal killer of a young mother and her baby daughter in a knife attack that also left her 3-year-old son near death. The verdict in this case has been analyzed, reviewed and upheld for 34 years by local, state and federal courts, despite defense efforts to portray the convicted defendant as a victim when nothing could be further from the truth,” said Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich in an email. 

According to Lawrence Buser of the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, Payne will be evaluated by mental health professionals to “to determine whether he is mentally competent and subject to execution” this Friday. Buser said he doesn’t expect a determination will be made until December 13. 

Holman said the fight is not over. “I can never let the voice of my mother die again,” said Holman. “We’re making some noise, and the noise has come from Tennessee all the way to Martha’s Vineyard.”