NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers are inching closer to advancing legislation designed to prevent death row inmates with an intellectual disability from being executed.
The proposal has gained a groundswell of support from disability advocates, legal experts and death penalty critics who argue Tennessee is long overdue in addressing the matter.
They point to death row inmate Pervis Payne, who defense attorneys argue is intellectually disabled as they fight to prevent the state from executing him.
In 2002, the United States 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 the General Assembly to address the issue.
“Will this ensure justice? The answer is yes,” said Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat and chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus. Hardaway defended the bill in committee this week.
“This language — not only by the definition that is being modernized for intellectual disabilities — but by updating and streamlining a process for moving the cases through the appeals process, justice is delivered for the victim and victim’s family sooner than later,” Hardaway 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 until April 9 after Gov. Bill Lee granted him a rare, temporary reprieve. A new execution date has not yet been rescheduled.
In the interim, Payne's attorneys hope that the General Assembly will pass the proposed measure during the final week's of the legislative session.
The bill has faced minimal resistance as it advanced out of legislative committees, but it still must clear the full House and Senate chambers.
Senate Speaker Randy McNally, a Republican who has vocally defended the death penalty, told reporters on Thursday that he “would oppose it” but stopped short of saying if he would attempt to spike the bill.
“I think once the individual has been sentenced then they shouldn't have an opportunity to use diminished capacity,” he said.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican from Crossville, 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.
Yet Majority Leader William Lamberth, a Republican from Portland, said he still had concerns with the bill even as he called the effort “noble.”
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.
“This legislation will ensure that Tennessee does not violate America’s Constitution by executing a person with intellectual disability," Starr wrote in a letter to the General Assembly.
“Importantly, given that people with intellectual disability are at a heightened risk for wrongful conviction, this legislation will also provide a safeguard against the unconscionable error of executing an innocent person,” he added.