MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A man convicted of double murder in Shelby County and sentenced to death will no longer face capital punishment.
Michael Sample’s death sentence has been vacated.
Sample and Larry McKay were both convicted in 1983 for double murder in 1981 at the L&G convenience store on North Watkins Street.
Years after the conviction, federal and then state laws changed regarding the treatment of intellectually disabled inmates.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court banned death sentences for people with intellectual disabilities. But there was still a gray area for people sentenced in earlier years like Sample and another notable Shelby County inmate, Pervis Payne.
The Payne case caught the attention of Heidi Haines, who was in the process of moving to Tennessee to take over as executive director of the Arc Tennessee, an organization supporting people with intellectual disabilities.
“Someone with an intellectual disability is someone who requires additional supports from community or family to be able to live in society,” Haines said.
In 2020, Haines and other disability advocates pushed for action at the state legislature to update Tennessee law to clarify no one with an intellectual disability could be put to death.
It passed and had an immediate impact on Payne’s case; the Shelby County District Attorney at the time, Amy Weirich, gave up her fight to keep Payne on death row.
“A state expert examined Payne and all available records,” Weirich said in November 2021. “We can’t change the facts and we can’t change the law.”
Soon after, an attorney started drafting a 400-page filing for Sample, including expert testimony on his intellectually disability. His lawyer indicated he could’ve been falsely accused of murder.
“People with intellectual disabilities sometimes have hard times making decisions and are easily influenced,” Haines said.
Lawyers for Sample presented the case to Shelby County judge Paula Skahan in February 2023 and asked her to vacate the death sentence. Current Shelby County DA Steve Mulroy didn’t challenge the request.
“The defendant met all three prongs of the test for intellectual disability,” Mulroy said. “I am convinced Michael Sample is intellectually disabled or was at the time of the offense.”
Sample’s sentence was reduced to life in prison.
Haines hadn’t heard about Sample’s case until WREG brought it to her attention.
“It’s so exciting to hear that’s working the way it’s supposed to,” Haines said.
Other inmates could also pursue sentence changes, though Mulroy told WREG he was not currently considering any other cases. He opposes parole in Sample’s case, he said.
“I will look at any case where there’s a post-conviction filed we have to respond to. If there is no post-conviction filed, I won’t look at it,” Mulroy said.
A post-conviction lawyer for Jesse Dotson, the Memphis man on death row for killing six people including multiple family members and children in 2008, is asking the state Supreme Court to pay for a mental health examination, which could set the stage for a later request.