Supreme Court stops Mississippi execution
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
Both foes and supporters of capital punishment last night (Oct. 30) were carefully watching Mississippi, the last state with an execution on its calendar before the U.S. Supreme Court is due to rule on the constitutionality of lethal injection procedures.
Gov. Haley Barbour (R) vowed that the state would carry out the execution of Earl Wesley Berry for kidnapping and fatally beating a woman in 1987. The Mississippi Supreme Court refused to grant a reprieve, as did the 5 th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans . The killer said goodbye to family members and awaited his execution at the state death chamber in Parchman , Miss. , at 6 p.m. local time.
Just 19 minutes before a lethal combination of three drugs was to be shot into Berry's arms, however, the U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution - the third time it has intervened in a capital case since Sept. 25, when it agreed to hear a case brought by two Kentucky death-row inmates who claim that lethal injection, at it is carried out by 36 states, illegally inflicts cruel and unusual punishment.
By postponing Berry 's execution - and previously postponing executions in Texas (Sept. 27) and Virginia (Oct. 17) - the justices sent their strongest signal to date that a nationwide moratorium on lethal injection has taken hold while they consider the merits of the Kentucky prisoners' arguments. The court's decision to hear the Kentucky case, Baze v. Rees , has allowed defense attorneys across the country to successfully argue that states should not carry out death sentences using a method that soon could be ruled unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court was not unanimous in delaying Berry's execution. According to a court release, Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito opposed the stay, reflecting divisions in the nation's highest court over whether executions by lethal injection should be postponed until the justices rule in Baze v. Rees .
The court did not provide a reason for the opposition by Scalia and Alito, and no other explanations accompanied its decision, as is common. The justices also did not explain the last-minute stays of execution in Texas and Virginia for inmates who sought delays while the justices consider the three-drug combination commonly used in executions. Several botched executions have raised concerns that prisoners may be conscious but unable to move when the third, heart-stopping drug is administered, exposing them to unnecessary pain.
Berry 's scheduled execution attracted considerable attention because it was seen as a crucial test of whether the justices would allow any lethal injections to go forward before they rule in the Kentucky case, likely sometime next spring. Mississippi was the only state still using lethal injection that had scheduled an execution by that method, according to the Death Penalty Information Center , a Washington, D.C.-based organization that opposes capital punishment.
While some states, including Florida and Texas, have assigned execution dates in the weeks ahead, other executions in those states already have been placed on hold, either by order of the governor or state or federal courts. It now appears increasingly likely that no states will carry out executions by lethal injection for the remainder of the year, said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center. That would make 2007, with 42 executions so far, the least active year for the death penalty since 1994, when 31 people were executed, according to the center.
Overall, 18 states now have governor-imposed or court-ordered holds on lethal injection: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
Lethal injection was placed on hold in 10 of those states before the Supreme Court agreed to hear Baze v. Rees , underscoring the legal uncertainty that has surrounded the procedure for much of the past two years.