Gov. Lee Delays Execution in Case Spotlighting Intellectual Disability

By Nadia Ramlagan

MEMPHIS — Gov. Bill Lee has delayed the execution of Pervis Payne until next spring, citing challenges and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The execution originally was scheduled for December 3.

The case has made national headlines because of Payne’s intellectual disability. According to the Innocence Project, Payne has a IQ score between 68 and 72, and the reading and writing skills of a child.

Democratic State Representative G.A. Hardaway of Memphis and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators have pre-filed legislation that would allow defendants like Payne to present a claim of intellectual disability to the courts. Hardaway said people with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be convicted of crimes.

“When you have someone that’s intellectually disabled and has the mental capacity of a child, the simplest way to think of it is, ‘Would you allow a child to be executed?'” Hardaway said.

Payne was sentenced to death for the 1987 killing of a Shelby County woman and her two-year-old daughter. He continues to maintain his innocence.

State law does ban the death penalty for individuals with extremely low IQs, but for people already sentenced to death, there is no legal recourse. Payne’s attorneys recently filed a petition asking the governor to commute his death sentence.

Hardaway said the definition of intellectual disability isn’t clear, and can be difficult to prove in court.

“There’s a gap in the law procedurally, and there’s ambiguity and confusion in the law when it comes to the definition of intellectual disability,” he said. “Our legislation simply looks to close the gap and clear up the definition.”

Hardaway said stark racial disparities in who receives death sentences should be a rallying call to implement reforms that give defendants the opportunity to be heard.

“We believe that those who are poor and innocent have just as much right to fair and equitable treatment in the court as those with money who are sometimes guilty and still walk,” he said.

Research has shown racial bias in the criminal-justice system against defendants of color – especially when the victim is white – has a strong influence on prosecution and sentencing. According to a report released earlier this year by the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1977, 295 Black defendants have been executed for the murders of white victims; while 21 white defendants have been executed for the murders of Black victims.