Relatives of slain mom, daughter speak at Payne hearing

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Before Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter Lacie Jo were brutally stabbed and killed in a Tennessee apartment 34 years ago, their tight-knit family loved meeting for joyous reunions on holidays, gathering for birthday parties and hanging out at a relative’s swimming pool.

Those family celebrations have come far less often since June 27, 1987, the day the victims’ bodies were found on the floor of their home, soaked in blood. The killings left the lives of many of Christopher’s relatives in sad, frustrated pieces.

“There was so much love, and it was taken away from us,” said Kathy Hites, Christopher’s sister-in-law. “Charisse didn’t have a choice. We didn’t have a choice. She’s forever with the angels.”

Hites was one of three of Christopher’s family members who made statements Tuesday during a sentencing hearing in the case of Pervis Payne, who had spent more than three decades on Tennessee’s death row for the killings.

Last month, Payne was released from death row when a judge vacated his sentence based on evaluations by two experts who determined Payne is intellectually disabled. Lawyers for Payne, 54, had petitioned for him to be evaluated for mental disability.

During a two-day hearing, Shelby County Judge Paula Skahan heard from family and friends of Payne, wardens at the maximum security prison in Nashville where he’s been held, and relatives of Christopher, who was 28 when she was murdered.

Skahan must decide whether Payne will serve the terms consecutively or concurrently. The distinction is significant. A ruling for the life terms to be served one after the other — or consecutively — would mean Payne would not be eligible for parole until he is at least 85 years old.

Should the judge decide that Payne can serve the sentences concurrently — or at the same time — Payne would be eligible for parole in just six years.

Skahan said she would rule in January.

Payne was convicted by a jury in the killings in the Memphis suburb of Millington. Christopher’s son, Nicholas, who was 3 at the time, was also stabbed but survived. All three victims were white.

Payne, who is Black, has always maintained his innocence. He told police he was at Charisse Christopher’s apartment building to meet his girlfriend when he heard Christopher screaming and tried to help. He said he panicked when he saw a white police officer and ran away.

Trial prosecutors alleged Payne was high on cocaine and looking for sex when he stabbed Christopher and her daughter in a “drug-induced frenzy.”

Payne won’t be put to death because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executions of the intellectually disabled violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

But until Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill this summer making Tennessee’s law retroactive in prohibiting the execution of the intellectually disabled, the state had no mechanism for an inmate to reopen a case to press an intellectual disability claim. Payne’s lawyers have said the new law was critical in freeing Payne from death row.

On Monday, Payne’s supporters testified he was a kind, helpful person who liked to dance with his sister, cut his neighbors’ grass, give parishioners rides to the church where his father was a pastor, and play drums in the church band.

They also testified that Payne had trouble reading and was excused from speaking during classes because of his learning problems.

On Tuesday, the judge heard from four prison officials in a virtual call from Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. They said Payne worked hard as a janitor in the death row unit and had no disciplinary issues.

Prosecutor Steve Jones then called Christopher’s relatives to the witness stand. Jones has argued for consecutive life sentences, to account for each of the two slayings.

But Kelley Henry, Payne’s attorney, said the judge only has to determine if Payne is a danger to society. Henry argued that he is not one, and pointed to statements by Payne’s supporters saying they would welcome him into their community.

Christopher’s family supports consecutive sentences. Angela Johnson, Charisse Christopher’s sister, said her life fell apart after the killings, and she is “full of anger, hurt.”

Johnson said the other stabbing victim, Nicholas, has lived a sad life since the deaths of his mother and sister. He lives alone, does not date and has very few friends, she said.

“He completely shut down,” Johnson said of her nephew. “You can still tell that there’s a part of him that will never be happy. Ever. Not without them.”

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