It seems about as likely as the idea that a guy with no history of violence, no history of drug use, no criminal history whatsoever, described by everyone who knew him as a kind and gentle man who’d do anything to help anyone, one day randomly chose to get so high on cocaine that he decided to try and massacre a whole family, then immediately after his arrest returned to someone described by everyone as a kind and gentle man who goes out of his way to be helpful. Even prison staff say he’s one of the most good-natured and well-behaved inmates they’ve ever seen.
These are all interesting observations which would support a petition for clemency to take Payne off death row, but they’re irrelevant to his guilt. He was spotted literally minutes after the murder covered in the victims’ blood, and he ran away from the cops. The story he told at trial was absurd, which is itself proof of his guilt. There are hundreds of indisputably guilty people in prison who are kind and gentle and helpful, and who prison guards like and respect. That doesn’t mean they’re innocent. Murderers in fact have some of the lowest recidivism rates, because their crimes are often driven by relationship factors which are unlikely to crop up again.
If you’ve worked on these kinds of cases, you must know how difficult it is to overturn a conviction after it’s happened. You need more for an appeal than you do reasonable doubt in a trial. Lots of little things aren’t enough. And it’s extra difficult here, because so much of the physical evidence was tampered with/destroyed/has mysteriously disappeared/was never even collected in the first place.
I have worked on these cases and am well aware that overturning a conviction on appeal is difficult. It’s supposed to be difficult. I am also a comparative lawyer who has studied criminal justice systems from across the entire world intensively. Every criminal justice system in the world has similar rules, and many of them (including Germany) are stricter than the United States’. Here’s an interview in which Germany’s leading post-conviction appeals lawyer warmly praises American law, which permits many more opportunities to challenge convictions than German law does. (Of course, German prison sentences are much shorter than American ones, but still, American offers convicts more opportunities to challenge them.)
Why do these rules exist literally everywhere that has a functioning criminal-justice system? Because people really don’t like going to prison. They will do almost anything to try to prevent this, including falsely claiming innocence. And once they’re inside, many of them will file appeal after appeal, either with the help of lawyers or on their own. So every criminal justice-system has rules which provide that a convicted defendant must come up with compelling new arguments or evidence to overturn their conviction.
In global comparison, the United States is generous in providing appeals to defendants in serious crimes — it provides every one of them with a court-appointed lawyer for their direct appeal, and ample opportunities to introduce new evidence after conviction, and increasing access to post-conviction DNA testing. But, like all other countries, it also has rules which safeguard properly-obtained convictions against second-guessing.
In my view, Payne’s allegations don’t come near the standard required. “Lots of little things” aren’t enough, and they shouldn’t be enough, since “lots of little things” have gone wrong in every trial ever held. Only when those “little things” cohere to create a plausible, convincing case for the defendant’s innocence does the defendant prevail, and this is a pretty sensible rule, I find.
When the Supreme Court banned the execution of the intellectually disabled, it said part of the reason was that intellectually disabled defendants are more susceptible to coercive interrogation techniques to the extent that they incriminate themselves without realising, that they are less able to assist their own lawyer, and that they may suffer because of prejudices of the jury, who may misinterpret their expressions and reactions (or lack of) as signs of guilt or lack of remorse when they’re actually symptoms of their adaptive deficits. All of that can contribute to wrongful convictions.
Payne was on the margins of intellectual disability, a mild case. This got him off death row, which I think is great. Yet once again, how does any of this prove that the man seen running from the victims’ apartment minutes after their murders, covered in their blood, was in fact not guilty of the crime? These kinds of arguments prove too much because they’re based on a faulty generalization: Because some people with intellectual disabilities may face these obstacles in some trials, this means that Payne faced them in his own trial. How do we know? Where’s the specific, admissible proof? What’s the endpoint of this argument? That nobody with an intellectual disability should be put before a jury trial, because of the danger of misinterpretation? That they shouldn’t be held accountable at all?
I’m afraid I see claims about “systemic” or “historical” influences as hand-waving, not real arguments. They have no relevance to this specific case unless this relevance is proven by convincing evidence. Here, the jury obviously convicted Payne because the evidence was hugely against him, and because his story made no sense. He could have had an IQ of 130 and been convicted. Jens Söring, for that matter, did, and was.
His clemency petition cites several other examples of people wrongly accused and convicted of murder after finding a crime scene and getting blood over themselves when they approached the body. It does happen. And it’s one thing for police to be sceptical of Pervis Payne’s account, another to basically refuse to investigate if any of it could be true or even consider alternative suspects.
I’m sure it has occasionally happened that people got covered in the victims’ blood while trying to help them, and then got convicted on that basis. However, I’m equally sure that the overwhelming majority of people who were convicted of murder because they were caught red-handed drenched in the victims’ blood were in fact guilty. Once again, just because something can happen doesn’t mean it did happen to Payne. So, in my view, this is more hand-waving. I’m also hardly convinced that the police should have spent much time pursuing alternate suspects other than the guy who was seen leaving the victims’ apartment drenched in the victims’ blood minutes after their murders. This wasn’t exactly a whodunit. Charisse Christopher’s apartment wasn’t Grand Central Station.
Have other people come forward with information about possible alternate suspects? Sure, but this happens in every single high-profile murder case. After decades of non-stop litigation and frequent news coverage, thousands of people come forward with hearsay, gossip, and speculation about potential alternate suspects. You can read May God Have Mercy, which is an entire book full of evidence about potential alternate suspects and “suspicious” problems with the police investigation in the case of Ronald Keith Coleman, who loudly protested his innocence literally until his last breath. All of them turned out to be irrelevant, as a later DNA test confirmed Coleman’s guilt.
Most of these statements are worthless, either because the witness is lying, biased, mistaken, publicity-hungry, mentally unstable, or just has a bad memory. It would take an extremely convincing showing to cast doubt on someone other than the guy who was seen drenched in the victims’ blood minutes after their murders. And Payne hasn’t shown me anything yet which would convince me he wasn’t the one.
The Innocence Project page you linked is about creating a brief summary that people can quickly read to get the major points. The intellectual disability claim gets more attention because it’s the most recent development and it’s what got him off of death row. There are other pages about him on the site with more about the DNA testing, the missing physical evidence, the lack of motive and other details.
Where? I’ve searched the site and found no more than a letter from an MLK relative and stuff relating to Payne’s intellectual disability. I’ve also entered dozens of permutations into Google trying to get to the original, unedited pro-Payne documents and arguments and found almost nothing. What’s stopping the Innocence Project and/or Payne’s lawyers from simply posting all of its public court filings online? The prosecution has done just this for many of the appeals, you can read one of their filings here. The prosecution is obviously not afraid of letting anyone with an Internet connection kick the tires of its arguments. Why aren’t Payne’s lawyers that confident?
As for racism, I don’t know why the prosector would spend so much time describing Charisse Christopher’s white skin if he wasn’t trying to emphasise her purity and innocence in contrast to the dark-skinned black man accused of killing her.
If this was so obviously racist, then why wasn’t it be successfully challenged in court? Where is the specific citation to the record, including the entire context, which would permit the reader to form an independent conclusion as to whether these remarks (assuming they indeed exist) were indeed motivated by racism, instead of dozens of other possible factors? Once again, Payne’s lawyers could help us out here by providing a complete, full citation to the record of exactly when and in what context these remarks were made. The fact that they haven’t speaks volumes: They want us to accept their spin, but won’t give us access to enough information to determine whether their spin is fair and accurate. I decline.
It’s not like violent and institutionalised racism was a thing of the distant past in the 1980s. The last recorded lynching in Tennessee was in 1940, which was probably within the lifespan of some of the people in that courtroom. Segregation was still in place until the 1960s. And the jury selection process in America does not have a great history when it comes to weeding out bias and ensuring a fair and balanced jury – another former Tennessee death row inmate, Abu-Ali Abdur Rahman just had his 1986 death sentence replaced with a life sentence because of prosecutorial misconduct, including racism in jury selection.
I find these arguments once again to be invalid generalizations, hand-waving. Perhaps someone who was born in Tennessee in 1939, and who was thus alive when the last lynching occurred there, did serve on Payne’s jury or work on his case. What does that prove? As for the American jury process, one can go back and forth on it, and I have, in public, many times. But I would argue that in its modern form, it does a reasonably good job of weeding out bias.
Again, the US system has far better procedural safeguards than most other countries with jury systems. English juries are traditionally chosen almost totally at random, with the judge only summoning a few more jurors than will eventually sit, and there is no chance for the lawyers to probe their potential biases:
In longer and more complex cases questions can by asked of potential jurors by asking them to fill out a questionnaire. However, there is no equivalent to US-style jury selection where jurors are questioned by legal representatives before being accepted onto a jury.
In the United States, by contrast, the court calls “panels” of 50 potential jurors who are then, in capital cases, interviewed extensively, often individually, for hours by the judge and both defense lawyers. The defense and prosecution can remove biased jurors for cause, and each side can remove 15 other jurors with ‘peremptory’ challenges which they do not have to explain. During these juror examinations, jurors will be acquainted with all relevant facts of the case, asked about their backgrounds, and repeatedly admonished not to permit any form of prejudice to affect their decision. It often happens that both sides question all 50 of the initial jurors and only end up with 6 jurors at the end of the process. Thus, to get to 12, another panel of 50 jurors is called, and so forth until you have a jury of 12 members, usually plus at least 2 alternates in case one of the 12 gets ill or is removed.
These safeguards are light-years more sophisticated and thorough than those in any other country in recorded history. By and large, they work quite well. After all, American criminal juries have handed down verdicts in several major cases last year (Rittenhouse, Chauvin, etc.) that most observers found to be eminently sensible. Of course, biased jurors do sometimes slip through, and either or both sides sometimes succeed in evading the safeguards against discrimination. But these are exceptions which prove the rule. Activists have this habit of relentlessly focusing on the times the justice system has derailed, while completely ignoring the overwhelming majority of cases in which the justice system gets the right guy.
Further, where’s the endpoint of this argument? Should Tennessee be debarred from prosecuting black defendants, no matter how strong the evidence, until everyone alive at the last lynching is deceased? Or until “institutional racism”, however it’s defined, is finally ended?
I don’t know for sure if Pervis Payne is innocent, and I’m not sure if it’ll ever be proved to standard acceptable to a court, but I am certain that the investigation was deeply flawed, and I don’t remotely trust a DA with such a history of misconduct to give any innocence claim a fair hearing.
Nobody can ever know for sure whether Payne is innocent, but this is true of all crimes in which there were no living witnesses or recordings. There are thousands of people in Germany, the UK, and all other nations on earth imprisoned based on circumstantial evidence — almost always much weaker than the evidence in Payne’s case. As for Payne’s innocence claims, the DA isn’t the one who decides them — that would be grossly unconstitutional. Judges decide those claims, and their decisions are subject to further review on appeal — appeals which are always taken in capital cases.
My main point is that the Innocence Project is squandering its resources and credibility on cases which simply aren’t innocence cases. They even have Steven Avery on their list of potential innocents. They sometimes seem to be willing to let political and ideological considerations influence which cases they choose. I think that will, in the end, prove damaging to their credibility, and thus to their clients.