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By ADRIAN SAINZ, Associated Press

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — DNA tests on a knife and other evidence must be performed in the case of a Tennessee death row inmate facing execution in December for the stabbing deaths of a woman and her daughter 33 years ago, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Shelby County Judge Paula Skahan ruled in favor of attorneys for Pervis Payne, who had filed a petition in July requesting DNA testing in the long-running case.

The judge decided the evidence should be sent to a California laboratory hired by defense attorneys to perform expedited testing at no cost to the state.

Payne, 53, is scheduled to be executed on Dec. 3 in Nashville. Payne’s attorneys hope that he could be exonerated if his DNA is not found on the items, or if another man’s DNA is discovered on the evidence.

“He's going to be overjoyed,” Payne's cousin, Karen Anderson, said outside the courtroom.

Payne has always maintained his innocence in the 1987 stabbing deaths of Charisse Christopher and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie Jo. Christopher’s son, Nicholas, who was 3 at the time, also was stabbed but survived.

Payne is also asking a federal judge to postpone his execution, saying that he is intellectually disabled.

At the time of Payne’s trial, DNA testing of evidence was unavailable, and no testing has ever been done in his case. A previous request for DNA testing in 2006 was refused on the basis of a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling that has since been overturned.

Improvements in DNA testing technology and the expansion of a national database of DNA profiles are compelling reasons for testing a knife that was used as the murder weapon, a washcloth, a tampon and other items collected at the scene of the killing in Millington, north of Memphis, Payne’s attorneys argued.

“This Court concludes exculpatory DNA results in this case, had they been presented to the jury, would have created a reasonable probability Mr. Payne would not have been convicted of first degree murder,” the judge wrote in her ruling.

Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich fought the request. Even if another person’s DNA was found on the evidence, it would not exonerate Payne because there would be no indication of when the other person’s DNA was left, she said.

During a hearing Sept. 1, prosecutor Steve Jones argued that the evidence could have been touched by many people and contaminated before, during or after Payne’s trial.

Weirich said her office will not appeal.

“We will await the results of the testing that defense assures can be done quickly," Weirich said in a statement. "We do however have concerns that touch DNA has been deposited on the items over the last 33 years since the murders happened.”

Payne told police he was at Christopher’s apartment building to meet his girlfriend when he saw a man in bloody clothes run past him. Payne, who is African American, has said he found and tried to help the victims, who were white, but panicked when he saw a white policeman and ran away.

Prosecutors said Payne was high on cocaine and looking for sex when he killed Christopher and her daughter in a “drug-induced frenzy.”

Payne’s petition says police focused almost exclusively on him as a suspect, although nothing in his history suggested he would commit such a crime. He was a minister’s son who was intellectually disabled and never caused problems either as a child or teenager, his lawyers say.

Payne's lawyers also argue that there were other people with both the motive and opportunity to kill Christopher, including a drug dealer to whom Christopher allegedly owed money and Christopher’s abusive ex-husband.

Lawyers also wanted to test scrapings from Christopher’s fingernails, which were collected from the crime scene, but they cannot be found. Authorities have not been able to locate them in two property rooms and a forensic center where evidence has been kept since the trial.

The judge also ruled Wednesday that fingerprints will not be tested because a post-conviction DNA analysis law does not allow testing for them.

The most recent execution in Tennessee was in February, when Nicholas Sutton died in the electric chair.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Tags: Tennessee

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Judge Rules on Scope of Testimony in Newspaper Shooting Case

By BRIAN WITTE, Associated Press

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — A psychiatrist retained by prosecutors in the sanity phase of a trial for a man who killed five people at a Maryland newspaper isn't barred by law from testifying about whether he believes the gunman was criminally responsible, but he can't directly compare him to other mass shooters in an FBI report, a judge ruled Friday.

Judge Laura Ripken ruled at a pretrial hearing that Dr. Gregory Saathoff can testify before a jury about his findings relating to the criminal responsibility of Jarrod Ramos, even though Saathoff has not examined him in person.

The judge ruled last month that Saathoff could testify, but defense attorneys have been trying to limit the scope of what he can say on the stand. They contended the lack of an interview with Ramos should preclude the psychiatrist's testimony on criminal responsibility.

“I find that based on the law, Dr. Saatoff, in the state of Maryland, is not barred by law from offering testimony on the ultimate issue of criminal responsibility due to the lack of the interview of the defendant, which is the bulk of the defense argument," Ripken said.

The judge noted she would still need to make a determination during the trial that Saatoff is qualified and that he relied on information used by experts in the field to make his findings.

The judge also ruled Saatoff can testify about an FBI report designed to provide federal, state and local law enforcement with data on mass shootings in the country, but he can't compare Ramos to other mass shooters in the report. Prosecutors say the report provides a foundation for the state's theory that Ramos was not mentally ill and acted in conformity with other mass shooters' behaviors.

“It may be used as a basis, and the theories may be presented, but at this point in time without ... another sufficient legal basis, they would have to be presented without comparison or statistics related to other mass shooters,” Ripken said.

The judge said it was too soon for her to rule on other efforts by Ramos' lawyers to restrict Saathoff's testimony, because she has not seen all of the evidence.

The trial's second phase is scheduled for December before a jury to determine criminal responsibility. If Ramos were found not criminally responsible for the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper, he would be committed to a maximum-security psychiatric hospital instead of prison.

There are three different mental health experts in the case.

Dr. Sameer Patel, a psychiatrist with the state Health Department, has conducted a mental health evaluation of Ramos. The evaluation has not been made public, but Ripken said in court in October that Patel found Ramos to be legally sane.

Defense attorneys have retained their own mental health expert and they are arguing Ramos should not be held criminally responsible because of mental illness.

Last year, Ripken denied a request by prosecutors to conduct a separate evaluation of Ramos, because the state already had conducted one. However, the judge ruled prosecutors could prepare their own case in various ways, including challenging the defense experts’ findings and reports.

Ramos pleaded guilty in October to all 23 counts against him for killing John McNamara, Gerald Fischman, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen and Rebecca Smith at the Capital Gazette. The attack was captured on surveillance video and Ramos was arrested hiding under a desk in the newsroom.

The 40-year-old had a well-documented history of harassing the newspaper’s journalists.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Tags: Maryland, Delaware

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