SCLC Fights To Free Death Row Inmate
While Evidence in Pervis Payne Case for Killing White Woman Disappears
Last week President Joe Biden hosted an impressive list of civil rights leaders at the White House. They came to discuss national efforts by Republican officials to restrict voting rights and criminal justice reform considering an alarming uptick in police killing of Black people since the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
Those present included Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League, Al Sharpton, President of the National Action Network Damon Hewitt, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, Wade Henson, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Derrick Johnson, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Johnnetta Cole, President of the National Council of Negro Women.
Noticeably absent from this auspicious lineup was Charles Steele, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization that led the fight to enact the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voter Rights Act. With such a pedigree, one would think the President of SCLC would have been a leading advocate for the Black agenda in the meeting with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Undaunted, Steele continues Dr. Martin Luther King’s work in the trenches fighting for the oppressed. This week, SCLC has teamed up with the Innocence Project in the case of Pervis Payne, an intellectually challenged Black man who received a death sentence for the rape and murder of a White woman in 1989.
During the trial, prosecutors described Payne as an oversexed Black man who had an overriding desire to penetrate a White woman after thumbing through a Playboy magazine. His intellectual disability prevented Payne from assisting in his defense during the trial. Still, in 1989 who in Tennessee would have believed that a Black man in Tennessee did not lust after a southern belle.
Payne has resided on the Tennessee Death Row for the past 33 years. He has always maintained his innocence. Despite Payne’s assertions of innocence in the rape and murder, Shelby County prosecutors failed to test DNA evidence from the crime scene.
That is, not until 2020 when the Innocence Project teamed with the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Nashville and the Milbank Law Office to file a petition to have the DNA evidence tested. The exam revealed DNA from a third party but could not match it to another person because, over time, the sample had broken down too much to make a conclusive match. The DNA test results give credence to Payne’s claim that he did not commit this crime.
But hold on, before fingernail evidence from the victim could be analyzed, it suddenly, after being in the state’s possession for 33 years, disappeared — evidence which possibly could have freed Payne. At least someone in the Tennessee law enforcement apparatus believed that it could.
On Friday, Payne goes to court to seek to have the conviction overturned because of the sudden disappearance of a key piece of evidence that laid undisturbed for 33 years until Payne received the legal right to have it tested.
On July 15, 2021, Steele will lead a Free Pervis Payne Rally at the Greater Community Temple Church of God In Christ. The rally will precede by a day a hearing at the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center, which seeks to have Payne released from what Steele calls “an unlawful conviction.”
“Pervis Payne should have never been convicted in the first place,” Steele said during a telephone interview as he prepared to leave for Memphis.
“When you consider the evidence to free him of these charges was there all along, but the prosecutor would not examine it. The prosecution’s conduct amounts to prosecutorial misconduct. It is the best example of moral turpitude you will ever find. There is no way we can allow this wrongful conviction to stand,” Steele said.
Harold Michael Harvey is the Living Now 2020 Bronze Medal winner for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is the author of a book on Negro Leagues Baseball, The Duke of 18th & Vine: Bob Kendrick Pitches Negro Leagues Baseball. He writes feature stories for Black College Nines. Com. Harvey is a member of the Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, HBCU and PRO Sports Media Association, and a member of the Legends Committee for the National College Baseball Hall of Fame. Harvey is an engaging speaker. Contact Harvey at firstname.lastname@example.org.