USA - Alabama. Divided Supreme Court says execution of Christopher Lee Price can proceed

14 April 2019 :

Divided Supreme Court says execution of Christopher Lee Price can proceed — but the death warrant had already expired. Conservative justices on the Supreme Court overruled lower courts in a middle-of-the-night order and said an Alabama execution could proceed, over the objections of their liberal colleagues who wanted to discuss the case Friday morning. Early in the morning of Friday, April 12, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States lifted the 60-day stay of execution granted to Price by Federal District Judge Kristi K. DuBose and upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Price was arguing that the execution by lethal injection would cause him severe pain and suffering, violating his 8th Amendment rights, and that he should be allowed to choose to be executed by nitrogen hypoxia. In rejecting Price's claim, the Supreme Court noted that Price had waited too long to make his claim, as death row inmate had the option of selection execution by nitrogen hypoxia last year. Price failed to select nitrogen hypoxia at that time. Although the Supreme Court of the United States lifted the 60-day stay of execution by a vote of 5-4, the decision came after midnight, when Christopher's execution warrent expired. Alabama will now have to request that the courts set a new date of execution. But the 5-to-4 ruling at the Supreme Court indicated that the court’s new conservative majority is far less likely to agree to last-minute stay requests from those facing execution. It also emphasized the stark divide between conservative and liberal justices on capital punishment and the most humane way to carry it out. “What is at stake in this case is the right of a condemned inmate not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment,” wrote Justice Stephen G. Breyer, objecting to the majority’s decision. He added: “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.” He was joined by his fellow liberal colleagues Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Price, sentenced to death for his role in murdering an Alabama minister in 1991 with a sword and a dagger, was asking to be executed by inhaling nitrogen gas, a process called nitrogen hypoxia, rather than risk a “botched” execution by injection. Alabama allows nitrogen hypoxia but has never used it in an execution. But the Supreme Court majority said Price had missed his chance to elect that manner of death. In a brief, unsigned order, the court’s conservatives said that death-row inmates in Alabama in June 2018 were given 30 days to elect nitrogen hypoxia. While 48 inmates did so, Price did not. “He then waited until February 2019 to file this action and submitted additional evidence today, a few hours before his scheduled execution time,” said the order from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh. That majority earlier this year allowed the execution of a Muslim inmate in Alabama who had complained that he was not allowed an imam by his side at his death, while Christian inmates could have a chaplain with them. The five justices suggested the legal action had come too late. The conservatives also recently rejected an appeal from a Missouri inmate who said that lethal injection in his case could cause excruciating pain — such that perhaps he would choke on his own blood during the process. The court ruled 5 to 4 that Russell Bucklew had not proven that lethal injection would choke him or that another manner of execution would alleviate the problem. Breyer’s dissent revealed the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that accompanies execution stay requests. “Should anyone doubt that death sentences in the United States can be carried out in an arbitrary way, let that person review the following circumstances as they have been presented to our court this evening,” Breyer wrote. Price was scheduled to be executed at 6 pm CDT, on Thursday, April 11, 2019, at the Holeman Correctional Facility in Atmore. After Price obtained stays from judge DuBose and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, the state of Alabama asked the Supreme Court to intervene after 9 p.m. Thursday. Breyer wrote that he requested the court take no action until Friday, when the justices were scheduled to meet in private conference to discuss other matters. “I recognized that my request would delay resolution of the application and that the state would have to obtain a new execution warrant, thus delaying the execution by 30 days,” Breyer wrote. “But in my judgment, that delay was warranted, at least on the facts as we have them now.” But he said the majority would not agree to that, “thus preventing full discussion among the court’s members. In doing so, it overrides the discretionary judgment of not one, but two lower courts. Why?” The court’s ruling was emailed to reporters at 2:51 a.m. Friday. While the deliberations proceeded in Washington, Alabama officials decided to halt Price’s execution just before the death warrant expired at midnight. That left them angry as well. “This evening, the state of Alabama witnessed a miscarriage of justice,” Gov. Kay Ivey (R) said in a statement. Price has been convicted of the murder of 57-year-old minister, Bill Lynn, on December 22, 1991. A Fayette County jury in 1993 sentenced Price to death by a vote of 10-2.


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