Social media plays a significant part in justice in the modern world. With the ever-evolving tools of filters, crops, and hashtags, along with the mind-boggling forms of hate-speech, caption obsession, and the spread of misinformation, there comes a some-what new form of social influencing. On April 9, 2021, a mentally ill man will be executed by the Shelby County Government for two murders he was charged with thirty years ago. In an effort to prove his innocence and nudge the District Attorney in the right direction, thousands of social media users have been posting to Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag, #freepervispayne. This issue has been ongoing for months and has been covered by influential organizations in the tri-state area. This shows an avid discussion of social justice in media and proves that social media can affect and influence society beyond just beauty standards and next vacations.
The day was June 27, 1987, when Pervis Payne was at his girlfriend's Millington, Tennessee apartment. He was waiting in the parking lot when he saw a blood-soaked man running from the building. As the man passed his car, he dropped a slew of papers and change next to Payne. Out of curiosity, Payne picked up the documents before checking out the scene. He decided to explore the suspicious noise coming from his girlfriends across the hall neighbors. When he entered, he discovered Charisse Christopher. A woman had been stabbed 41 times and had a knife lodged into her throat, still barely alive. When Christopher reached for the knife, Payne pulled it out to help. In a fluster, he ran to find someone. Upon leaving the apartment, he heard sirens and saw police officers. The 20-year-old fled the scene due to his inability to process the situation mentally. Later that day, Payne was arrested for the two murders of both Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter.
Pervis Payne, Tennessee born and raised, is set to be executed within the next forty days. The Innocence Project, a Memphis non-profit organization that seeks to prove individuals' innocuousness by petitioning their clemency, has been active in Payne's case. In their initial blog post, they said this, "Payne lives with an intellectual disability and struggled in school. Though he tried, he continued to have difficulty with reading, spelling, and math, even after being placed in resource classes." They also go on to say, "Despite his best efforts, Payne was unable to graduate. Growing up he also had trouble with everyday tasks like cooking and doing laundry — as a child, he needed help feeding himself until he was 5." (Project, 2020) According to the Innocence Project's website, doctors have confirmed through rigorous testing that Payne's mental disabilities are legitimate. Therefore, it is unconstitutional as per the 8th amendment to execute him.
In addition to the mental disabilities that Pervis Payne faces, he is also a black man. Many have said that racial bias may play a big part in this case. At the time of his initial trial, the prosecutor wrongfully exploited not only his disabilities but also his race. Payne's portrayal relied on offensive stereotypes of black men and attempted to convince the jury that he was a dangerous and lustful drug abuser. Payne didn't know Christopher and had no motivation to assault or murder her. Furthermore, no proof proposed that he explicitly attacked her. However, police and examiners contended that Payne had made a move on Christopher while utilizing drugs and liquor and that, when she dismissed him, he killed her. The National Registry of Exonerations said in a report, "Innocent Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than innocent white people." (Gross, 2017) Payne's whole case hearing relied too heavily on racial stereotypes and theorizing rather than actual evidence.
In all of these years, the DNA on the murder weapon has never been tested. None of the DNA was ever tested from the crime scene. Payne initially filed a request for DNA testing in 2006 and was denied. However, since that request, Tennessee laws have changed. Payne now has the right to test all evidence relating to his case. District Attorney Amy Weirich opposed DNA testing for Pervis Payne's case in August 2020. Nonetheless, on September 16, 2020, Shelby County ordered DNA testing of the crime scene. According to FOX13, "Payne's DNA was found on multiple items at the crime scene, including a paper towel bundle and a washcloth." They go on to state, "it wasn't found on a handle of the murder weapon. This DNA belongs to an unknown male." (Garriss, 2021) Since then, Weirich stated in a written letter, "the evidence of Payne's guilt was and still is overwhelming." (Garriss, 2021)
As of today, it's unclear if the inner workings of the case are and what strategy Payne's lawyers are working on playing. It does seem like they've hit a roadblock, and the government is determined to execute this man; unconstitutionally or not. That's where social media comes in. There has been a constant flow of posts dedicated to Pervis Payne and his case. Pictures of him, stories, and justice being demanded. On the District Attorney's Instagram, there are many people demanding for Amy Weirich to "free Pervis Payne." I've seen at least 30 hashtags dedicated to his case and proving his innocence. It's inspiring to see.
Previous situations similar to this one is the cases of Cyntoia Brown and Alice Marie Johnson. Cyntoia Brown is from Nashville, Tennessee, and was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison at 16-years-old. After 15 years in jail, former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted Cyntoia Brown clemency after a convincing trial and bombardment of social media posts calling him out and demanding justice. Her story is documented in Netflix's Murder to Mercy.
In the case of Alice Marie Johnson, she has Kim Kardashian to thank for her clemency. Falsely convicted of her involvement in a Memphis, Tennessee cocaine trafficking company, she was sentenced to life imprisonment. After Kardashian got wind of her case through social media, she took to own platform to petition for her clemency. She went as far as joining former President Donald Trump to discuss the injustice; Trump pardoned Johnson in August 2020. Through that situation, Kardashian spread light on social injustice and encouraged her plethora of followers to always be on the lookout for the mistreatment of minority communities and sub-cultures.
We as a nation have made progress. Through social media, no matter your thoughts on the topic, users can amplify minority voices and strive for social justice. Never has that been more prevalent than in 2020. Through the black lives matter movement, more people have been educated and involved in topics they would never have dreamed of. The new development of social media advocacy – or the fight for authentic and genuine justice – shows that social media has evolved. Through campaigns like "Say their name," individuals are receiving the respect they've always deserved but have never received. The world is changing, changing quickly. Through new developments of social justice like Cyntoia Brown, Alice Marie Johnson, and now, Pervis Payne, social media takes on a new role. Before it, we had to stand outside government buildings to march and protest, a thing we still and should do. However, social media has provided a fantastic tool – particularly during the pandemic – to safely call upon our leaders. Question their decisions for the betterment of society. Prove innocence to the wrongly convicted.
Pervis Payne most likely will not be granted clemency or proved innocent by his execution date coming up. This problem is rooted deep in our justice system. Nonetheless, I believe that tools like social media can and have influenced these decisions. Social media has morphed into nothing but a means to influence society. Simple as that. In my generation's hands and the one coming up, we must choose to fight for the ones who can't fight for themselves. We will do this through constant advocacy, social justice, and the influence of society.
Project, I. 8 things you need to know About Pervis Payne who is facing execution. (2020, November 09). Retrieved March 11, 2021, from https://bit.ly/2Okx2OC
Garriss, K. (2021, January 26). Judge dismisses DNA petition in Pervis Payne case. Retrieved March 11, 2021, from https://bit.ly/30KQA1n
Gross, S. R., & Possley, M. (2017). Race and Wrongful Convictions (Rep. No. 92697). Irvine, CA: University of California Irvine. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://bit.ly/3rALcte.