Early Friday morning, a divided Supreme Court ruled against granting a stay of execution to an Alabama man, Christopher Lee Price, 46. Price had requested the delay citing the method of execution being too painful.
The court ruled in favor of the execution to proceed. The order came after Alabama officials called off the scheduled execution on Thursday night. Price has been on death row for over 20 years for killing Pastor Bill Lynn of the Church of Christ, with a samurai sword. Pastor Lynn, 57, was surprised by Price while wrapping Christmas gifts for his grandchildren. Coroner’s report states he was stabbed over 30 times.
Price’s attorneys argued that Alabama’s lethal injection drug combination has led to “botched” executions and that nitrogen hypoxia would be less painful.
Not granting an order to stay the execution until after midnight on Thursday requires that Price’s execution be delayed for another 30 days. Justice Stephen Breyer argued that the “delay was warranted, at least on the facts as we have them now.”
The court determined that Lee waited too long to request that nitrogen hypoxia, be used as his form of execution. Breathing pure nitrogen causes an individual to suffocate. Rather than “a severe risk of pain” from Alabama’s current use of three drugs to administer a lethal injection, Breyer argued. He continued to say that Alabama had “expressly authorized” the form of execution.
U.S. Supreme Court precedent says inmates challenging a state’s method of execution must show that there is an available alternative that is also likely to be less painful. The state argued in court filings that even though nitrogen hypoxia is authorized under Alabama law, it is unavailable because the state has been unable to “procure the means for executing someone with nitrogen gas.” Alabama said Price missed a deadline to select nitrogen as his preferred execution method.
Breyer wrote that he believes some of the issues raised in Price’s case could have been resolved by lower courts and that the Supreme Court is overstepping in overturning stays of execution issued by those courts without the justices discussing the cases first.
“To proceed in this way calls into question the basic principles of fairness that should underlie our criminal justice system,” he 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.”
Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan agreed with Breyer.
This is the Supreme Court’s second divided ruling in a death penalty case in the last two weeks.
The court last week, in an opinion authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, ruled 5-4 against a Missouri man who argued that execution by lethal injection would cause him “excruciating pain” because of a rare medical condition.
Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion that the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a painless death.
But Breyer, writing an opposing opinion in the case, found that the ruling “violates the clear command of the Eighth Amendment” protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
September 4, 1998, Christopher Lee Price was convicted of capital murder for the intentional murder of Bill Lynn during the course of a robbery in the first degree.
After a sentencing hearing, the jury returned an advisory verdict recommending, by a vote of 10 to 2, that Price be sentenced to death by electrocution. After holding a separate sentencing hearing, the trial court sentenced Price to death by electrocution.