The governor of Tennessee has delayed the execution of an intellectually disabled man due to the coronavirus pandemic. The execution of Pervis Payne was scheduled for December 3. It is now set for April 9, 2021.

The bishops of Tennessee have repeatedly opposed the administration of the death penalty in the state and have called on Gov. Bill Lee (R) to halt the execution.

Gov. Lee posted a brief statement on his website on November 6, saying that he is “granting Pervis Payne a temporary reprieve from execution until April 9, 2021, due to the challenges and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This is the second delay of Payne’s execution due to coronavirus. He was previously scheduled to be executed in April of this year, but the date was moved because of concerns about bringing observers and family members into the state’s execution chamber. Payne was convicted of a double murder in 1988 and sentenced to death. He maintains his innocence and says he was a bystander.

Payne’s IQ has been tested in the low 70s to high 60s. Tennessee law sets a cut-off of 70 in its definition of “intellectual disability.”

The Innocence Project has taken up Payne’s case and are arguing that he was wrongfully convicted of the crime, or should at least have his death sentence commuted to life in prison due to his intellectual disability. They point to untested evidence they say could exonerate him, and are seeking to have this evidence tested for DNA.

Payne was arrested on June 27, 1987, after 28-year-old Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie, were found dead from multiple stab wounds. Christopher’s son, Nicholas, was gravely injured but survived. Charisse Christopher was White; Payne is Black.

Payne said that he heard Christopher crying for help, and entered her apartment. He says he fled the scene when a police officer arrived, fearing he would be wrongfully accused of the murders.

The bishops of Tennessee’s three Catholic dioceses have appealed for Lee to commute Payne’s sentence. In an October 27 letter signed by Bishop Richard Sitka of Knoxville, Bishop Mark Spalding of Nashville, and Bishop David Talley of Memphis, the three voiced their general opposition to the death penalty.

“As the bishops of the three dioceses in Tennessee, in conjunction with the Catholic Public Policy Commission, we again approach you with the request that you invoke the powers vested in you as governor to stop another needless execution,” said the bishops in October.

“We clearly state our strong opposition to the state carrying out the death penalty in the case of Pervis Payne scheduled for December 3, 2020.”

The bishops stated that “Carrying out this execution does not serve the cause of justice and bucks the national trend of moving away from capital punishment,” and they noted that “more than 165 people released from death row after they have been found to have been innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.”

“Based on a human system as it is, there is always the chance that the state executes an innocent person. But even when guilt is certain, execution is not necessary to protect society,” they said. The bishops wrote that they were praying for the victims of the crimes for which Payne was convicted, and for Payne himself.