For Black History Month, we will highlight stories and statistics that aim to demonstrate the experience of being Black and wrongfully convicted. Today, we are discussing the staggering fact that innocent Black people are more likely to be exonerated from death row.
Since 1973, 174 innocent people have been exonerated from death row; innocent Black people account for 92 of those. Black defendants are more vulnerable to capital prosecutions for many reasons including the long history of over-policing Black communities and falsely implicating Black people in crimes.
“The death penalty is inextricably linked to our history of slavery, of lynching, and Jim Crow segregation, and we wanted to put what is happening today in its appropriate context,” Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham told the Associated Press. “What the data tells us and what history tells us is that they’re all part of the same phenomenon.”
In 1986, an 18-year-old White woman named Ronda Morrison was murdered at Jackson Cleaners in Monroeville, Alabama. With no leads for six months, the police focused their attention on Walter McMilllian. McMillian, a 45-year-old self-employed logger, had no criminal history. The Monroeville police were only aware of him because he was a Black man who had an affair with a White woman.
A White man named Ralph Myers who was accused of crimes in another county was coerced by police to falsely accuse McMillian. Among their coercive tactics was putting Myers, a burn victim, in the cell on death row closest to the execution room where he heard a man get electrocuted. Myers refused to implicate McMillian prior to this experience, but after listening to someone’s execution and being told that he would be put on death row himself if he did not cooperate, Myers told the police whatever they wanted to hear.
Monroe County Sheriff Tom Tate arranged for McMillian to await his trial for 15 months on death row. Monroe County inspired Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” about a Black man falsely accused of raping a White woman.
Despite having an alibi that was corroborated by numerous friends and family, the nearly all-White jury convicted McMillian on Myers’ false testimony, and he was sentenced to death by electrocution. He spent six more years on death row before he was freed by the Equal Justice Initiative.
Bryan Stevenson took McMillian’s case when he first moved to Alabama to begin EJI. Stevenson found evidence of Myers’ first interview with police in which he maintained he knew nothing about McMillian. The police hid this evidence after they coerced Myers to change his story. Confronted with this, Myers agreed to recant his false testimony. McMillian’s conviction was overturned by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in 1993. The state agreed that the case was mishandled and dismissed the charges.
Click here to learn more about McMillian, Stevenson, and EJI’s work.
McMillian’s exoneration saved him from execution. Pervis Payne, a Black man who was wrongfully convicted one year after McMillian, is currently fighting for his life in Tennessee.
In June 1987, Pervis Payne, a Black man who lives with an intellectual disability, was at outside of his girlfriend’s apartment building in Millington, Tennessee, waiting for her to come home when he saw a man covered in blood run out of the building.
Payne entered the building and saw an apartment door open. He went in and discovered Charisse Christopher’s body. She had been stabbed 41 times and had a knife in her throat. Payne, only 20-years-old at the time, tried to help Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter who had also been attacked. As he was running out of the building to get more help, two police officers were arriving. Payne had a sinking feeling.
“Some other feeling just went all over me, and I just panicked,” Payne said in his testimony. “Just like, oh, look at this. I’m coming out of here with blood on me and everything. It going to look like I done this crime.”
Payne’s feeling was right. He was arrested later that day and charged with the murders of Christopher and her daughter. Although Payne did not know Christopher, and no drug or alcohol testing was ever conducted in the investigation, prosecutors argued that Payne was intoxicated and made an advance on Christopher. They speculated that when Christopher rejected Payne, he brutally murdered her and her daughter.
Prosecutors relied on stereotypes of Black men being hyper-sexual and exploited Payne’s intellectual disability. Shelby County, where Payne was tried, is among the top 25 counties with the most recorded lynchings between 1877 and 1950; during his trial, the state repeatedly highlighted the victim’s “White skin” when discussing her injuries. Despite knowing that Payne has an intellectual disability, the state charged him with capital murder, which is unconstitutional.
Additionally, the state failed to properly investigate a viable suspect. Christopher’s ex-husband was physically and mentally abusive. Payne and another eyewitness saw a man covered in blood running out of the apartment building, which could have been the ex-husband. Investigators dismissed him as a suspect because he was serving a sentence for aggravated assault. However, an employee at the minimum security prison where he was incarcerated has since admitted that inmates were known to leave during the day without consequence.
Payne was found guilty and sentenced to death. His execution date is set for April 9 2021, which is less than two months away. On September 16, 2020, DNA testing of the knife, which was never conducted, was finally ordered. On January 19, 2021, Payne’s attorney announced the findings of the testing; Payne’s DNA in addition to an unknown male’s DNA were both found on the knife. This corroborates Payne’s story that another man killed Christoper and her daughter and that he touched the knife when he discovered their bodies and tried to help them. His attorneys are currently planning to use this evidence to argue for Payne’s clemency.
Sign the Innocence Project’s petition below to show your support for Payne’s innocence.
Click here to read the Death Penalty Information Center’s “Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty” published on September 15, 2020.