Ruling says in­mate waited too long to ob­ject to method of ex­e­cu­tion

The Buffalo News - - CON­TIN­UED FROM THE COVER -

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.”

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