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April 12, 2019

Via 5-4 vote, SCOTUS reverses lower court stay of Alabama execution ... but does so too late for Alabama to carry out execution

As reported in this local article from Alabama, headlined "Execution called off for Christopher Price; SCOTUS decision allowing it came too late," five members of the Supreme Court tried again to enable a state to go forward with a scheduled execution, but its decision was later than it needed to be to allow the execution to go forward last night.  Here is the story:

Christopher Price was set to be executed at 6 p.m. Thursday for the 1991 killing of a minister in Fayette County, but the execution was called off about half an hour before Price’s death warrant expired at midnight.  An order from the U.S. Supreme Court that says the execution could go forward was issued shortly before 2 a.m. Friday, but it was too late for the state to carry it out because of the expired death warrant.  The state will now have to set a new execution date.

In a 5-4 decision the U.S. Supreme Court denied Price’s request for a review of his appeal and for the stay of execution.  Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent, joined by three other justices, objecting to the overruling of decisions by a federal judge and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the execution.

The order came after several appeals Thursday, beginning with Price’s attorneys filing an emergency motion for a preliminary injunction to a federal judge in Mobile asking her to halt the execution around 1 p.m.  Just before 4 p.m. Thursday U.S. Southern District Court Judge Kristi DuBose stayed the execution for 60 days.  She wrote the state had until May 10 to submit evidence in contradiction to Price’s contention that the three-drug execution protocol will cause or is likely to cause him severe pain and that execution by the new method — nitrogen hypoxia — will significantly reduce the substantial risk of severe pain.

The AG’s Office appealed to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed DuBose’s ruling and kept the stay in place.  The Attorney General’s Office on Thursday night then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying in part that Price had not met a deadline for signing up for the new execution method.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office in its order issued Friday morning.  The majority opinion stated that Price essentially waited too late. “In June 2018, death-row inmates in Alabama whose convictions were final before June 1, 2018, had 30 days to elect to be executed via nitrogen hypoxia ... Price, whose conviction became final in 1999, did not do so, even though the record indicates that all death-row inmates were provided a written election form, and 48 other death-row inmates elected nitrogen hypoxia.  He then waited until February 2019 to file this action and submitted additional evidence today, a few hours before his scheduled execution time.”

At 11:34 p.m. — when the nation’s highest court had yet to rule — the state called off the execution. A statement from the ADOC said, “As a practical matter, the time remaining before the expiration of the death warrant does not permit sufficient time to accomplish the execution in accordance with established procedures."

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall released a statement after the announcement was made.  “Tonight, in the middle of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, the family of Pastor Bill Lynn was deprived of justice.  They were, in effect, re-victimized by a killer trying to evade his just punishment. This 11th-hour stay for death row inmate Christopher Price will do nothing to serve the ends of justice.  Indeed, it has inflicted the opposite — injustice, in the form of justice delayed."...

Samantha Banks, an ADOC spokesperson, said Price’s last request was to be married to his fiancée.  He was married Wednesday in the visitation yard at Holman.  Price was visited by his wife, an aunt, and an uncle on Thursday. Wednesday, he made four phone calls to attorneys, one to his wife, and one to an aunt....

Lynn, a minister at Natural Springs Church of Christ, was fatally stabbed with a knife and sword outside his home in the Bazemore community three days before Christmas in 1991. Court records state Lynn was putting together Christmas presents for his grandchildren, when the power went out.  He walked outside to check the power box when he was attacked. Records state Lynn suffered 38 cuts, lacerations, and stab wounds, and one of his arms was almost severed.  He died en route to a local hospital.  His wife, Bessie Lynn, was wounded in the attack but survived her injuries.

Price, of Winfield, was 19 at the time and was arrested in Tennessee several days after the slaying. He was convicted in 1993.

The short order from the Supreme Court and the lengthy dissenting opinion authored by Justice Breyer and joined by three other justices is available at this link.  Because the key line of the Court's order is reprinted above, I will quote here the last paragraph of Justice Breyer's six-page dissent:

Alabama will soon subject Price to a death that he alleges will cause him severe pain and needless suffering.  It can do so not because Price failed to prove the likelihood of severe pain and not because he failed to identify a known and readily implemented alternative, as this Court has recently required inmates to do.  Instead, Alabama can subject him to that death due to a minor oversight (the submission of a “preliminary” version of a final report) and a significant mistake of law by the Court of Appeals (the suggestion that a report marked “preliminary” carries no evidentiary value).  These mistakes could be easily remedied by simply allowing the lower courts to consider the final version of the report.  Yet instead of allowing the lower courts to do just that, the Court steps in and vacates the stays that both courts have exercised their discretion to enter.  To proceed in this way calls into question the basic principles of fairness that should underlie our criminal justice system.  To proceed in this matter in the middle of the night without giving all Members of the Court the opportunity for discussion tomorrow morning is, I believe, unfortunate.

April 12, 2019 at 08:49 AM | Permalink

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