Pervis Payne is scheduled to be executed December 3. File Photo courtesy of PervisPayne.org
Sept. 16 (UPI) -- A Tennessee court on Wednesday ordered DNA testing on evidence defense lawyers say could prove a death row inmate's innocence.
The order from the Shelby County Criminal Court concerns Pervis Payne, 52, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Charisse Christopher and her daughter, Lacie Jo, in 1987. Prosecutors said he also non-fatally wounded Christopher's then-3-year-old son, Nicholas.
Payne is scheduled to be executed Dec. 3.
Payne has maintained his innocence for more than 30 years and his lawyers say they recently discovered evidence in the Shelby County Criminal Court clerk's office that could exonerate him.
The items, they said, have never been subjected to DNA testing because his initial trial occurred when such technology wasn't available. Payne's attorneys, who include representatives from the Innocence Project, accused the state of illegally hiding the evidence in the meantime.
The items included bed linens and clothing with blood stains, fingernail clippings and a potential rape kit. The evidence was collected from a bedroom in Christopher's apartment, though at the time, prosecutors said the kitchen was the only crime scene.
"The court's thoughtful and reasoned decision to order DNA testing in Pervis Payne's case is just and in line with Tennessee's clear DNA testing law," said Vanessa Potkin of The Innocence Project and member of Payne's legal team.
"When DNA evidence exists in a death penalty case, as it does here, it should always be tested to avoid the irreversible act of executing an innocent man. We have been clear from the beginning that DNA testing can be completed within 60 days. DNA testing is an important piece of the puzzle in this case which has been racially charged from the start."
At the time of the slayings, Payne was dating Christopher's neighbor. He told police he found the victims' bodies after hearing calls for help, but investigators said he committed the crimes because he was on drugs and was looking for sex. They accused him of sexually assaulting Christopher, though she was found fully clothed.
Payne was never tested for drugs after his arrest.
Defense attorneys said that once prosecutors targeted him as the suspect, they never investigated any other suspects, including Christopher's ex-husband who allegedly had a violent past.
The attorneys said racial bias, hidden evidence and Payne's intellectual disability prevented him from receiving a fair trial. They said prosecutors relied on stereotypes of Black men and drug use, and pointed out Christopher's "White skin" to the jury.
Prosecutors had asked the Shelby County court to deny Payne's request for DNA testing, saying that since it came four months before his scheduled execution, it was designed to delay it. They also said that even if testing provided new evidence, it would not have created a reasonable probability that Payne wouldn't have been convicted for the murders.
Earlier this week, Payne's lawyers also asked a federal judge to postpone the December execution citing intellectual disability.