Pervis T. Payne was convicted in Shelby
County of killing Charisse Christopher and her daughter, Lacie Jo, in
what prosecutors described as a drug-induced frenzy.
Charisse Christopher, age twenty-eight, lived with
her two children, Nicholas, age three and one-half, and Lacie, age two
and one half, in the Hiwassee Apartments in Millington. Pervis T.
Payne’s girlfriend lived in the apartment across the hall from
Charisse Christopher’s apartment, and the apartment complex's resident
manager lived in the downstairs unit directly below the Christophers.
The building in which the Christophers resided
consisted of four units, two upstairs and two downstairs. Each of the
upstairs apartments had back doors in the kitchen that led to an open
porch overlooking the back yard. In the center of the porch was a
metal stairway leading to the ground. There was also an inside
stairway leading to the ground floor hallway and front entrance to the
On June 27, 1987, Payne visited his girlfriend’s
apartment several times in anticipation of their plans to spend the
weekend together. However, he found no one at home. On one visit, he
left his overnight bag and three cans of Colt 45 malt liquor near the
entrance of her apartment.
While waiting for his girlfriend to return, Payne
passed the morning and early afternoon injecting cocaine and drinking
beer. Later, he and a friend cruised around the area looking at a
magazine containing sexually explicit material.
At approximately 3:00 p.m., Payne returned to the
Hiwassee Apartment complex and entered Charisse Christopher's
apartment. At the same time, the manager heard Charisse screaming,
“get out, get out.” The noise briefly subsided and then began,
“horribly loud.” The manager called the police after she heard a
“blood curdling scream” from the Christophers’ apartment.
A police unit was immediately dispatched to the
Hiwassee Apartments. Meanwhile, although the manager noted that the
shouting, screaming, and running upstairs had stopped, she heard
footsteps go into the bathroom, the faucet turned on, and the sound of
someone washing up.
The first police officer arrived at the apartments
within minutes of the radio dispatch. Upon arrival, he observed a
black man on the second floor landing pick up an object and come down
the stairs. The officer encountered Payne as he was leaving the
apartment building. He noted that Payne had “blood all over him. It
looked like he was sweating blood.”
The officer confronted Payne, who responded, “I’m
the complainant.” When the officer asked “What’s going on up there?”
Payne struck the officer with the overnight bag, dropped his tennis
shoes and started running. The officer pursued him, but Payne
outdistanced him and disappeared into another apartment complex.
Inside the Christophers’ apartment, the police
encountered a horrifying scene. Blood covered the walls and floor
throughout the unit. Charisse and her two children were discovered
lying on the kitchen floor. Nicholas, despite abdominal stab wounds
that completely penetrated his body, was still breathing. Charisse and
Lacie were dead.
Charisse Christopher had sustained forty-two direct
knife wounds and forty-two defensive wounds on her arms and hands. The
wounds were caused by forty-one separate thrusts of a butcher knife.
None of the eighty-four wounds inflicted were individually fatal;
rather, the cause of death was most likely bleeding from all of the
The body of Charisse was found lying on her back
with her legs fully extended. Her shorts were pushed up on her legs
and a used tampon was found beside the victim’s lifeless body. Lacie’s
body was on the kitchen floor near her mother. She had suffered nine
stab wounds to the chest, abdomen, back, and head. One of the wounds
cut the aorta and would have been rapidly fatal.
The murder weapon, a butcher knife, was found at
her feet. Payne’s baseball cap was recovered from Lacie’s forearm -
her hand and forearm sticking through the opening between the
adjustment strap and the cap material. Three cans of Colt 45 malt
liquor, bearing Payne’s fingerprints, were found on a small table in
the living room. A fourth empty beer can was on the landing outside
the apartment door. Payne’s fingerprints were also found on the
telephone and counter in the Christophers’ kitchen.
Payne was apprehended later that day hiding in the
attic of the home of a former girlfriend. As he descended the stairs
of the attic, he stated, “Man, I ain’t killed no woman.” One of the
arresting officers remarked that Payne had a “wild look about him. His
pupils were contracted. He was foaming at the mouth, saliva. He
appeared to be very nervous. He was breathing real rapid.”
Payne had blood on his body and clothes and several
scratches across his chest. He also was wearing a gold Helbrose
wristwatch that had bloodstains on it. It was later determined that
the blood types found on Payne’s clothing matched the victims’ blood
types. A search of his pockets revealed a packet containing cocaine
residue, a hypodermic syringe wrapper, and a cap from a hypodermic
syringe. His overnight bag, which was found in a nearby dumpster,
contained a bloody white shirt.
A woman who was visiting her sister in the same
apartment complex that Saturday afternoon was sunbathing in the back
yard and heard a noise like a person moaning coming from the
Christophers’ apartment followed by the back door slamming three or
four times, “but it didn’t want to shut. And this hand, a dark-colored
hand with a gold watch, kept trying to shut that back door.”
The medical examiner testified that Charisse was
menstruating and a specimen from her vagina tested positive for acid
phosphatase. He said that result was consistent with the presence of
semen, but not conclusive, absent sperm, and no sperm was found.
At trial, Payne took the stand on his own behalf.
He testified that he did not harm any of the Christophers. Rather, he
asserted that another man had raced by him as he was walking up the
stairs. When he reached the landing, he heard a baby crying and a
faint call for help and saw the door was ajar. He stated that,
motivated by curiosity, he announced that he was coming in, and
entered the apartment.
He described what he saw as follows: I saw the
worst thing I ever saw in my life and like my breath just had--had
tooken--just took out of me. . . . she was looking at me. She had the
knife in her throat with her hand on the knife like she had been
trying to get it out and her mouth was just moving but words had faded
away. And I didn’t know what to do. He explained that he got blood on
his clothes and his person when he pulled the knife out of Charisse’s
neck and . . . “she reached up and grabbed me and hold me . . .” Payne
panicked and fled when he heard the police sirens.
During the State’s cross-examination, Payne made
the following admission: Q. Can you explain why there’s bloodstains on
your left leg? A. Left leg? Q. Yes, sir. A. Evidently it probably came--had
to come from when she--when she hit the wall. When she reached up and
grabbed me. Q. When she hit the wall? A. When she--when she hit--when
she hit when I got ready to run up--when I got ready to vomit. Q. When
she hit the wall she got blood on you? A. When she splashed. It was
blood--a lot of blood on the floor. Q. She got blood on you when she
hit the wall. Is that what you said? A. She hit against the wall when
she fell back. Q. Is that what you said, sir, that she got blood on
you when she hit the wall? A. I didn’t say she got blood on me when
she hit the wall. Q. Isn’t that what you said just a moment ago, sir?
A. That ain’t--that’s not what I said.
The jury returned guilty verdicts against Payne on
all counts. During the sentencing phase of the trial, Payne presented
the testimony of four witnesses. Payne's girlfriend testified that she
met Payne at church and stated that he was a very caring person, and
that he devoted much time and attention to her three children. She
said that her three children had come to love him very much. She
asserted that Payne did not drink, nor did he use drugs, and that it
was inconsistent with Payne’s character to have committed these crimes.
A clinical psychologist testified that Payne’s IQ
scores were verbal IQ 78 and performance IQ 82. Historically, the
“mental retardation” score is considered 75. Based upon these scores,
the doctor found Payne “mentally handicapped,” but not “retarded.” He
also stated that Payne was the most polite prisoner he had ever met.
Payne’s parents testified that their son, who was
twenty years old, had no prior criminal record and had never been
arrested. They also stated that Payne had no history of alcohol or
drug abuse, he worked with his father as a painter, he was good with
children, and he was a good son. The State presented the testimony of
Charisse Christopher’s mother, who related the emotional trauma that
the double murders had on Nicholas and how he continues to cry for his
mother and sister.
The jury found, as to both the murder of Charisse
Christopher and Lacie Christopher, that Payne knowingly created a
great risk of death to two or more persons other than the victim
murdered during his act of murder and that the murder was especially
heinous, atrocious, or cruel in that it involved torture or depravity
of mind. As to the murder of Lacie Christopher, the jury found that
the murder was committed against a person less than twelve years of
age and Payne was eighteen years of age or older. Finding no
mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to outweigh the
statutory aggravating circumstances, the jury sentenced Payne to death
on each of the murder counts.
Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808
(1991) was a United States Supreme Court case on criminal law, which
held that testimony on the form of a victim impact statement was
admissible, thus overruling two of that courts' precedents in the case
of Booth v. Maryland. It held that stare decisis could
be disregarded where fairness to Victim's rights had priority over the
demands of consistency in the common law. Such statements could be
allowed during the sentencing phase of a trial and the admission of
these statements in death penalty cases did not violate the
Constitution. The case had an enormous impact, as it recognized that
victims had rights in criminal cases in the United States.
Pervis Tyrone Payne was the defendant in this trial
prosecuted in Tennessee. On Saturday, June 27, 1987, after drinking
malt liquor, taking cocaine, and reading pornography, he attempted to
rape an acquaintance of his, Charisse Christopher, and finally he
murdered her and her 2-year-old daughter. Neighbors heard noises and
yelling, and called the police. Upon arriving, a police officer "immediately
encountered Payne who was leaving the apartment building, so covered
in blood that he appeared to be 'sweating blood'".
The police found "a horrifying scene." 42 stab
wounds were on Charisse's body. He had stabbed her 3-year-old son
Nicholas dozens of times. He ran away to his girlfriend's house, and
discarded his clothes, which were soaked in blood. Meanwhile, Nicholas
Christopher held in his intestines while the emergency medical
technicians transported him to the emergency room. There was
significant physical evidence implicating the defendant: Payne's
fingerprints on cans of malt liquor, the victims' blood soaked into
his clothes, and his property left at the scene of the crime.
Dozens of witnesses, including the police, friends,
the neighbors, and experts, testified at the trial. The evidence that
he perpetrated the attacks was "overwhelming," according to Chief
Justice Rehnquist. Payne denied the charges, claiming he came upon the
bloody victims. The DA stressed, in his closing arguments, the
senselessness of the killings, the violence displayed by the defendant,
and the innocence of the victims. The jury convicted him of two counts
of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder and a
At the sentencing phase, the judge allowed both the
public defender to adduce mitigating testimony from the defendant's
friends and family, and the district attorney (DA) to introduce
evidence from the grandmother/mother of the victims. Payne appealed to
the Tennessee Supreme Court, and then asked for a writ of
certiorari from the United States Supreme Court. Cert was
granted, with the court noting that it would have to reconsider its
past precedent. The case was argued on April 24, 1991 and decided on
June 27, 1991.
Issues and holding
The main issue in the case was whether damaging
testimony in the form of a victim impact questioning could be
admissible in the sentencing phase of an otherwise fair state trial.
Subsidiary to that were the issues of whether admission of these
statements in a death penalty case violated the Constitution; and
Whether the U.S. Supreme Court was bound by the doctrine of stare
decisis to follow its prior cases.
The defendant's guilt or innocence was not
in issue at this hearing, as only the legal issues of admissibility of
evidence, the victims' rights, and stare decisis were to be
decided. The Court legally presumed that Payne was, in fact, guilty
beyond a reasonable doubt, which was, in any case, not on appeal in
The court held that testimony on the form of a
victim impact statement was admissible and constitutional in death
penalty cases, thus overruling two of that courts' precedents, in that
stare decisis could be disregarded where fairness to the
victim's rights had priority over the demands of consistency.
It specifically overruled its prior cases of
Booth v. Maryland (1987) and South Carolina v. Gathers
The court's decision stated a number of strands of
reasons for its rationale in deciding this case:
The sentencer has the right to consider all
relevant evidence, with the rules of evidence.
The principle that punishment should fit the
crime is relevant here, and this was a particularly aggravated and
That stare decisis is "not an inexorable
command", and the Supreme Court, since Marbury v. Madison
(1803) has decided what the law is.
Since the defendant has certain rights, so should
The trial was fair in all respects, and
mitigating evidence ought to be presented with damaging evidence
Three Justices dissented: John Paul Stevens,
Thurgood Marshall, and Harry Blackmun.
Payne has had a significant, ongoing impact
in victim's rights, criminology, the law, the Court itself, and the
lives of the parties involved.
The case allowed victim impact statements in US
courts, and the overwhelming majority of states now allow such use in
the sentencing phase of trials. The whole area of victim's rights was
boosted by this case. One scholar recently wrote:
Among the most significant products of the
Victim's Rights Movement over the past decade has been the revival
of the use of victim impact evidence—evidence relating to the
victim's personal characteristics and the emotional impact of the
crime on others--during capital sentencing. With its decision in
Payne v. Tennessee (1991), the US Supreme Court not only reversed
its own recent precedent holding such evidence to be
unconstitutional, it left only a vague and malleable standard for
limiting its admissibility.
Another scholar calls the verdict in Payne
an example of "symbolic violence." It was pointed out that:
Rehnquist's reliance on this image of the
perpetrator as a rabid animal that is foaming at the mouth helps
to justify the violence of Payne's death sentence while it also
obscures that violence. The majority opinion in Payne, like the
prosecutor's arguments before the jury, hinges on contrasting
little Nicholas to Pervis Payne, juxtaposing Nicholas's smallness
and vulnerability to Payne's murderous and inhuman power. The
smaller and more innocent the victim, the stronger and more guilty
the defendant appears.
The case was one in a line of cases that showed how
the Rehquist Court shifted to the conservative or "right" on criminal
cases. The case is cited by at least one major college text book as a
Payne's execution was stayed in April 2007, and
after protracted litigation, again scheduled in December 2007, and
stayed again that month. Payne is still alive as of January 2010 and
is on death row for the double homicide.
Pervis Tyrone Payne