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Pervis Payne is taken off of death row

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news now - a Tennessee man who spent more than 30 years on death row has been spared from execution. A new state law lets Pervis Payne challenge his sentence for a crime he says he did not commit. He can challenge it because he is intellectually disabled. Here's Samantha Max of our member station WPLN.

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: When Pervis Payne walked into a Memphis courtroom on Tuesday morning, he hugged his attorney and sobbed as local TV cameras recorded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PERVIS PAYNE: (Crying).

MAX: Payne has waited more than three decades for this moment. He's been on death row since 1988 for a stabbing that killed a young woman and her daughter and wounded her son. Payne says he didn't do it, that he found the family on his way to visit his girlfriend who lived in an apartment across the hall. He says he tried to help the victims. But then Payne realized police might suspect him, a young Black man of stabbing the white family. So he fled. Police arrested him shortly after. Payne's sister, Rolanda Holman, was just 13 when he went to trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROLANDA HOLMAN: I remember the judge sentencing him to death by way of the electric chair. And then he said, may God have mercy on his soul. So I'm grateful at - for 34 years later, that God did have mercy on his soul.

MAX: This week, a judge vacated Payne's death sentence thanks to a new Tennessee law that allows people on death row with intellectual disabilities to ask for a lesser sentence. Payne's attorneys pushed for the legislation, noting that both the state and federal Supreme Courts had ruled people with intellectual disabilities shouldn't be executed. A recent evaluation found Payne fit those criteria. So last week, prosecutors dropped their fight for the death penalty.

KELLEY HENRY: What a difference it makes to be able to wake up in the morning and not have to feel like you have to fight for your life.

MAX: That's Payne's attorney, Kelley Henry. She's the one who held him in court as he cried. It was a rare moment of relief for an attorney who was the last line of defense for more than half of Tennessee's death row. The past few years have been particularly tough for her. After a nearly decade-long hiatus, the state executed seven people in a year and a half. Two were her clients. The federal government also carried out a spate of executions near the end of the Trump administration. Henry contracted COVID while trying to prevent one.

HENRY: I fear that Tennessee could be like the federal government in 2022 and 2023 with execution after execution.

MAX: The state has three executions on the books for next year, but judges have also overturned two of her clients' death sentences this month. Henry is grateful for this moment, but she is still determined to prove Payne's innocence.

HENRY: Justice does not come through the execution of an innocent man or the incarceration of an innocent man.

MAX: Prosecutors will no longer pursue the death sentence, but they're standing by Payne's conviction. So he won't be leaving prison, at least not now.

For NPR News, I'm Samantha Max. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.