A group of about 20 demonstrators gathered last Wednesday along North Thompson Lane in Murfreesboro to raise awareness for Pervis Payne’s death penalty conviction.
Murfreesboro was one of four Tennessee cities to participate, with supporters representing the cause in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville.
Payne’s sister, Murfreesboro resident Rolanda Holman, has been fighting to fight to clear her brother “Bubba’s” name long before the #FreePervisPayne tag began circulating on social media. The fateful day that would change her family’s life forever took place in Shelby County over 34 years ago.
The Payne family is from Tipton County, but Holman moved to Murfreesboro in 1992 to attend Middle Tennessee State University.
Thirty-four years ago. Payne, now 54, saw the door of the apartment across from his apartment. Neighbor Charisse Christopher and her two young children had been attacked. Holman said Payne tried to dial 911 for help, but mistakenly dialed 411, getting the information system line.
When he heard sirens, Holman said her brother left the apartment to flag someone down, but when the police saw the blood on his clothing, he was considered to be a suspect.
The news of Payne’s conviction was “just absurd” for the family to take in, especially Holman and her older sister Tyrasha, now deceased, who were only 13 and 15 years old at the time.
“I remember thinking, ‘How could this be? Bubba would never do anything like that,’” said Holman. “My parents thought, ‘Well, they’ll figure it out, you know, Pervis is telling the truth, and he’ll be home by the end of the week,’ and of course that ‘end of the week’ ended up turning into 34 years.”
Family members said Payne’s intellectual disability has been present from an early age. Holman said she became aware of that as an adult. She remembers her mother, Bernice, asking teachers if they could provide additional help to Payne with reading, writing and math.
Holman said that while her brother’s disability was used by the state’s prosecution to take advantage of him during his defense hearing.
One year ago, Payne and his family returned to court for an evidence-based hearing that had been previously denied to him in the mid-2000s. They hoped that DNA on Christopher’s clothing or fingernail clippings would be enough to clear his name.
Holman said the district attorney’s office had stated that the pieces were no longer available.
“We were really depending on those fingernail clippings because we knew, as our lawyer has intelligently explained, that the victim fought for her life. Her fingernails were even bent back to the quick almost,” said Holman.
Without that evidence, she said the case was not as strong as it could’ve been. Gov. Bill Lee granted Payne a temporary reprieve to delay Payne’s December 2020 execution date, which expired this April. Now his family and friends work on a “second by second” basis to raise awareness for his case and push for clemency.
Holman said she is grateful for the national support she and her family have received from others who believe her brother. A petition created in Payne’s honor has garnered nearly one million signatures and the recognition of celebrities, public figures and faith leaders.
“I often say, as long as there’s breath in my brother’s body, there is an opportunity to save his life,” said Holman. “As long as there is breath in my body it’s an opportunity for me to continue to fight for his life.”
Rallies also were held on Sept. 8 in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, St. Louis and Washington to continue the momentum of the weekly rallies started by Memphis Pastor Andre E. Johnson on that date in 2020.