A group in Memphis, Tenn., led by the Rev. Andre Johnson, has been gathering for a year to push support for the freedom of Pervis Payne, a man on death row in the state. Sept. 8 was the one-year mark of the group’s activities, leading to a rally in Memphis to push the case forward.
Payne was convicted in 1988 for the 1987 murder of a mother and her baby daughter, Charisse and Lacie Christopher, in Millington, Tenn. 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, has also joined in Payne’s case.
Payne’s case reached Martha’s Vineyard, gathering a crowd of around two dozen supporters to rally in Five Corners in Vineyard Haven.
“If you want visibility, I think there’s no better place than Five Corners,” Lisette Williams, a core member of Martha’s Vineyard Black Lives Matter (MV BLM), said.
Although the event was run by Disrupt Death Row, a movement supporting Payne’s freedom, it was MV BLM who suggested holding the event at Five Corners on Wednesday afternoon. Johnson caught wind of the fundraising event MV BLM held on July 31 called “Disrupt Death Row: Art and Justice” that sold artist and freed Tennessee death row inmate Ndume Olathushani’s paintings for the cause. It raised more than $50,000. Johnson reached out through Twitter, and told MV BLM member Jennelle Gadowski about the Sept. 8 rallies that would be taking place. This was an opportunity to be the next step in MV BLM’s activism for Payne after the fundraising event.
“I’m just really glad we were able to bring his name to our town, and to this community even more,” Gadowski said.
Memphis and Martha’s Vineyard were not the only places to see rallies supporting Payne. Rallies occurred across Tennessee, and in other places such as California, Texas, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and more, according to Commercial Appeal. Rolanda Holman, Payne’s sister, joined the rally in Murfreesboro, Tenn., according to WGNS Radio.
The Five Corners rally consisted of sign holders and tables with flyers and QR codes to inform interested passersby about Payne’s case. Those at the rally also wore “Free Pervis Payne” shirts and masks. Members of other Island advocacy groups joined Disrupt Death Row and MV BLM in the rally, such as the Martha’s Vineyard branch of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters Martha’s Vineyard, the Martha’s Vineyard Peace Council, and more.
“It was overwhelmingly positive,” Gadowski said. Interested people asked questions and took flyers, while drivers honked their horns in support. “I don’t think we had any disruptive or combative people.”
“I think the best thing we can do besides holding our ‘Free Pervis Payne’ signs is to wear the [‘Free Pervis Payne’] T shirts. They’re a conversation starter,” Williams said. People have stopped Williams at the beach and while she’s in town to ask “Who’s Pervis Payne?”which Williams sees as an opportunity to inform more people about Payne’s case. Many have never heard of Payne, and are surprised to learn a Tennessee case reached all the way to Martha’s Vineyard. Sales of the T shirts stopped on Sept. 8, so Williams is “a little sad” others might not be able to buy them.
Those who missed the rally but would like to see a bit of what happened can watch a video taken by MV BLM on Instagram.
Payne has undergone evaluations by mental health experts to determine whether his mental state made him eligible to be executed. A decision isn’t expected to be made until mid-December, according to Lawrence Buser of the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill in May that retroactively made it illegal to execute a person with a mental disability, according to AP News. Payne’s life is still in jeopardy, depending on the outcome of the evaluation and what steps are taken next.
“[Payne and his family’s] legal team is doing whatever they can, so that’s why we have to do what we can as the public to put pressure on the DA [Amy Weirich],” Gadowski said.
“We know all too well the criminal justice system is not always fair or impartial,” Williams said. “Looking at Pervis’ case, in my opinion, there’s no reason he should be behind bars, let alone death row.”
Williams said that people of all ages and backgrounds are invited to take part in advocating for Payne’s freedom. “We want as many people to support Pervis as possible. It doesn’t matter where they live, they don’t need to be Island-based to join us. We just want people who are ready, willing, and able to jump right in with us,” Williams said.
Writing opinion pieces or letters to the editor and posting about the case on social media are some ways people can participate in advocating for Payne and putting pressure on Gov. Lee and Shelby County District Attorney Weirich, according to Williams. She also pointed out that the more personal it is, the more persuasive advocacy can be.
Gadowski said the flyers the rally passed out to people showed easy ways for people to learn more about the case, such as at PervisPayne.org, an advocacy guide at bit.ly/FreePervisPayneToolkit, and an information line by the Innocence Project to keep up to date with the case when people text TEAMPAYNE to 522886.
Williams and Gadowski also encourage people to send letters and emails urging Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich to remove Payne from death row, and to urge Gov. Lee to grant Payne clemency. People are also encouraged to write supportive letters to Payne. He is held at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, 7475 Cockrill Bend Blvd., Nashville, TN 37209.
“Every little bit makes the world a difference, even if you just click on a petition or you just put it on your social media or you just write a letter, that goes a long way,” said Gadowski.