Judge mulls DNA tests in 33-year-old Tennessee death case
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A knife, a bloody washcloth and some missing fingernail scrapings are among evidence that should be DNA tested in the case of a Tennessee man scheduled to be executed in the brutal stabbings of a mother and daughter 33 years ago, lawyers for Pervis Payne said Tuesday.
Improvements in DNA testing technology and the expansion of a national database of DNA profiles collected from convicted felons are reasons why Shelby County Judge Paula Skahan should order testing in the case of Payne, his attorneys told the judge during a hearing.
Payne, 53, is scheduled to be executed on Dec. 3 in Nashville. Payne’s attorneys hope that he could be exonerated if his DNA is not found on the items, or if another man’s DNA is discovered on the evidence.
Payne has always maintained his innocence in 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.
At the time of Payne’s trial, DNA testing of evidence was unavailable, and no testing has ever been done in his case. A previous request for DNA testing in 2006 was refused on the basis of a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling that has since been overturned.
Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich is fighting the request. Even if another person’s DNA was found on the evidence, it would not exonerate Payne because there would be no indication of when the other person’s DNA was left, she has said.
During Tuesday’s hearing, prosecutor Steve Jones argued that the evidence could have been touched by many people and contaminated before, during or after Payne’s trial. He suggested Payne’s lawyers want to delay the execution by filing the petition seeking post-conviction DNA testing in July — four months and a week before the scheduled execution.
“There is no new evidence in this case,” Jones said during closing arguments. He later added that the evidence against Payne is “remarkably strong.”
Payne told police he was at Christopher’s apartment building to meet his girlfriend when he saw a man in bloody clothes run past him. Payne, who is African American, has said he found and tried to help the victims, who were white, but panicked when he saw a white policeman and ran away.
Prosecutors said Payne was high on cocaine and looking for sex when he killed Christopher and her daughter in a “drug-induced frenzy.”
Payne’s petition says police focused almost exclusively on him as a suspect, although nothing in his history suggested he would commit such a crime. He was a minister’s son who was intellectually disabled and never caused problems either as a child or teenager, his lawyers say.
The filing also states there were other people with both the motive and opportunity to kill Christopher, including a drug dealer to whom Christopher allegedly owed money and Christopher’s abusive ex-husband.
Payne’s lawyers offered a list of evidence that should be tested: A knife determined to be the murder weapon, a bloody washcloth, a pair of eyeglasses, a tampon.
Lawyer Kelley Henry said “new-age, cutting edge” DNA testing technology would be used to determine whether Payne’s blood is on the items. The DNA testing request is not an attempt to delay the execution, Henry said
Forensic analysis expert Alan Keel said testing has become “more sensitive and more discriminating.” Keel also noted that the collection of DNA profiles in the national DNA database has grown to about 19 million entries, making a match with another person’s DNA more likely.
“We are able to get much more information from less DNA,” Keel said.
Lawyers also want to test scrapings from Christopher’s fingernails, which were collected from the crime scene, but cannot be found. Authorities have not been able to locate them in two property rooms and a forensic center where evidence has been kept since the trial.
The judge said she would have a written ruling by mid-September.
The most recent execution in Tennessee was in February, when Nicholas Sutton died in the electric chair.