Ruling says inmate waited too long to object to method of execution
effectiveness, it will heal this long-festering wound before it attempts to persuade the country that in resolving the other thorny issues to come it has acted the way a judicial body should,” said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University.
The dispute among the justices Friday lasted long enough that Alabama officials postponed the execution of the inmate, Christopher L. Price, which had been scheduled for Thursday night. They said a new execution date would be set.
Late-night rulings on death penalty applications are not unheard-of, but they are seldom issued in the predawn hours. In his early morning dissent, almost certainly completed at home, Breyer wrote that the court’s treatment of the case was deeply distressing.
“To proceed in this way calls into question the basic principles of fairness that should underlie our criminal justice system,” Breyer wrote. “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.”
The majority, in a brief unsigned opinion, said Price had waited too long to raise his claim that Alabama’s method of execution, a lethal injection of three chemicals, could subject him to excruciating pain. Price asked to be executed using nitrogen gas, a method allowed by Alabama law.
Price and an accomplice were convicted of using a sword and dagger to kill William Lynn, a minister, in 1991 in his home in Bazemore, Ala., while he was preparing Christmas presents for his grandchildren. The pastor’s wife, Bessie Lynn, was badly wounded in the attack but survived. Price admitted to participating in robbing the couple but claimed that only his accomplice had harmed them.
In June, Alabama gave death row inmates 30 days to choose nitrogen hypoxia, which deprives the body of oxygen, as the way they would be executed, and Price failed to meet the deadline. The majority said that was the end of the matter.
A U.S. District Court in Alabama halted the execution Thursday, citing new evidence. At around 9 p.m. Thursday, Alabama officials asked the Supreme Court to allow the execution to go forward. The court agreed about six hours later.
Earlier this month, in rejecting a challenge from a Missouri inmate about how he was to be put to death, Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for a five-justice majority, said “courts should police carefully against attempts to use such challenges as tools to interpose unjustified delay.”
That decision followed a 5-4 ruling in February to allow the execution of a Muslim inmate in Alabama after his request to have his imam be present was denied, with the majority saying he should have asked sooner. In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the majority was “profoundly wrong.” In March, the court halted the execution of a Buddhist inmate in Texas in similar circumstances, over two noted dissents, with the majority apparently satisfied that the request had been timely.
In his dissent Friday, Breyer reviewed the proceedings in Price’s case and said undue haste had undermined justice. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan joined his dissent in the case, Dunn v. Price.
“Should anyone doubt that death sentences in the United States can be carried out in an arbitrary way,” Breyer wrote, “let that person review the following circumstances as they have been presented to our court this evening.”
Alabama officials expressed outrage over the delay after the death warrant expired.
“Tonight, in the middle of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, the family of Pastor Bill Lynn was deprived of justice,” Attorney General Steven T. Marshall said. “They were, in effect, revictimized by a killer trying to evade his just punishment.”
Marshall complained that Price had long “dodged his death sentence for the better part of three decades by employing much the same strategy he has pursued tonight – desperately clinging to legal maneuverings to avoid facing the consequences of his heinous crime.” He vowed that Lynn’s “day of justice will come.”
In his dissent, Breyer wrote that there were substantial questions about whether Price had acted too slowly in choosing nitrogen gas.
“What is at stake in this case,” Breyer wrote, “is the right of a condemned inmate not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”