Jewish and faith leaders across the country call on Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to commute Pervis Payne’s death sentence

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Thursday, April 8 2021
Contact: Logan Smith
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Jewish and faith leaders across the country call on Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to commute Pervis Payne’s death sentence
Bend the Arc: Jewish Action Memphis joins local and national faith groups in calling on Gov. Lee to take immediate action

MEMPHIS – Bend the Arc: Jewish Action Memphis is joining faith leaders from across Tennessee and the nation in calling on Gov. Bill Lee to commute Pervis Payne's death sentence. The coalition issued an open letter urging Lee to halt Payne's execution, signed by faith leaders and organizers from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Quaker communities, as well as the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action & Hope (MICAH) and the Tennessee Poor People’s Campaign.

“Our faiths teach us that it is our duty to protect one another,” the letter reads. “Many of us understand that freedom and liberation from injustice are integral parts of our traditions, our histories, and our future...In the case of Pervis Payne, we must ensure that our justice system is truly seeking justice, not harming those who are innocent.”

“Pervis Payne’s case shows how prejudice, ableism, anti-Black racism, and indifference can lead us to ignore the value of each human life,” said Nathan Light, core leader with Bend the Arc: Jewish Action Memphis. “As Jews and as people of faith we know that it is on us to rise up to face these forces, so that no innocent lives are taken in the pursuit of true justice.”

“When you believe in and know a person’s character, you do what it takes to support that belief even if you have to fight for it,” said Rolanda Holman, Pervis Payne’s sister. “My fight, for the last three decades, has been motivated by my brother, Pervis’, character. The fight has not been easy to decree his innocence when his character has been demoralized and dehumanized. We have experienced some low moments on this journey, but there is something innate in us that will not allow us to quit. I often say, if you are facing a tragedy in life, you better find something to hold on to whether walking, meditating, reading. For us, The Payne Family, it is our Faith in Christ. While this journey may not be over, we have Hope to believe something good is going to happen and the Faith to declare to our mountain, “Pervis, we are coming for you!”

“As a Rabbi and person of faith, I always err on the side of life, not death – especially in exceptionally questionable guilt cases like Pervis Payne,” said Rabbi Micah D. Greenstein, Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel, Memphis. “The zeal to inflict death is morally unconscionable. In a free Tennessee, some will be guilty if an unjust capital case like this is carried out, but we will all be responsible for the killing of a potentially innocent man. That is why I felt convicted as a religious believer to sign the petition and ask the Governor to commute his sentence.”

Pervis Payne is a Black man who has been living on death row for 33 years, despite living with an intellectual disability and without key DNA evidence in his case being tested. The Supreme Court of the United States held in Atkins v. Virginia that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment — yet Pervis is still on death row. Tennessee legislators are currently considering a bill that could protect Pervis and others with intellectual disabilities from execution, but his temporary reprieve from execution expires on April 9.

“Pervis Payne’s case has all the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction,” said Kimkeá Harris, an attorney working closely with Pervis and his family. “He was a young Black man with intellectual disability who was accused of killing a white woman in a county with a long history of racism; the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence and the State is now unable to account for critical missing DNA evidence that could prove his innocence. Governor Lee must do everything in his power to make sure Tennessee does not execute an innocent man.”

Bend the Arc: Jewish Action Memphis leaders have been working with Tennessee faith leaders and people across the state and country to fight for Pervis’ freedom, including organizing a virtual letter-writing event to state representatives and partnering with organizations like Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action & Hope (MICAH), and the Tennessee Poor People's Campaign.

“Civil rights pioneer and minister Dr. Vernon Johns said it best: ‘When you see a good fight, get in it,’” added Harris. “Thank you for jumping in this ‘good fight’ to save the life of Pervis Payne and making 'good trouble,' as Rep. John Lewis commissioned us to do on his deathbed.”

Bend the Arc: Jewish Action is uniting a movement of tens of thousands of progressive Jews across the country who are fighting for justice and equality for all. We are the only national Jewish organization focused exclusively on social change in the United States.

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