NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers on Monday passed legislation designed to prevent death row inmates with an intellectual disability from being executed.
The action sends the bill to Republican Gov. Bill Lee's desk, with implications for the case of a current death row inmate. Pervis Payne's attorneys have argued he is intellectually disabled as they fight to prevent the state from executing him. He received a temporary reprieve from the governor last November due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that relief has since expired.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing a person with an intellectual disability violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. However, Tennessee's Supreme Court later determined there was no procedure for death row inmates to reopen their cases to explore intellectual disability claims and encouraged state lawmakers to address the issue.
The legislation passed by wide margins after Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat and chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus, pushed for the change and Rep. David Hawk and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, both Republicans, moved a version of the bill through the Legislature.
“This bill does not provide for another bite at the apple, because those few individuals never actually got the first bite at the apple,” Gardenhire said.
Payne was sentenced to death in a Memphis court for the 1987 stabbing deaths of Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie Jo. Christopher’s son, Nicholas, who was 3 at the time, also was stabbed but survived. Payne, who is Black, told police he was at Christopher’s apartment building to meet his girlfriend when heard the victims, who were white, and tried to help them. He said he panicked when he saw a white policeman and ran away.
Payne was scheduled to die last December, but the execution was delayed after Lee granted him a rare, temporary reprieve. The stay on his execution expired earlier this month, but the state Supreme Court has not set a new execution date yet.
In the interim, Payne's attorneys hoped that the General Assembly would pass the proposal. Kelley Henry, Payne's lead public defender, said the bill's passage shows “how our three branches of government are supposed to work together.”
“The Tennessee Supreme Court urged the Legislature to patch a hole in Tennessee law that prevented people with intellectual disability from accessing the courts to press their claim that their execution is barred by the Tennessee and United States constitutions," Henry said in a statement. "Our legislature answered that call.”
Speaker Randy McNally, a Republican who has vocally defended the death penalty, initially said he would oppose the bill, but ended up voting in favor it.
Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton has said he felt “comfortable” with the bill because the disability coalitions backing the bill had worked with the district attorneys and attorney general's office to ensure they didn't have any objections to the latest version.
Meanwhile, supporters of the bill have included the Tennessee Disability Coalition and Ken Starr, the former independent counsel whose investigation led to former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.