Convicted Alabama death row inmate Christopher Price was granted a last-minute stay of execution on Thursday night, although hours later the Supreme Court ruled that the execution could proceed. By that time, however, the legal paperwork allowing his execution had expired, according to The Birmingham News, meaning that his execution would need to be rescheduled.
Price was set to be put to death by lethal injection on Thursday night. However, his case was being heard by the Supreme Court even as executioners were preparing the chamber for him. As they waited for the Supreme Court to deliberate, the death warrant allowing his execution expired.
Hours later, as The New York Times reports, a “bitterly divided” Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that his execution could go through. That means that Price will be put to death at some point in the future, although Alabama’s Department of Corrections will have to reschedule his execution and obtain another death warrant.
Price’s defense team had argued that the method that the state intended to use to put him to death, lethal injection, could cause him to suffer horribly. He had instead opted to be put to death by nitrogen suffocation, which is comparatively painless and is allowed by Alabama law.
In the court’s majority opinion, the justices cited technicalities, paperwork errors, and missed deadlines in denying Price’s stay of execution.
However, in his dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that questions remain over whether or not execution by lethal injection, which has demonstrably resulted in some condemned suffering horribly in their final moments, contradicts the Constitution’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
“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.”
Price’s case, and the sharply-divided Supreme Court’s opinion on it, is emblematic of a larger divide within the nation’s top court when it comes to capital punishment.
Over the past century, the court has issued conflicting rulings on capital punishment and the means by which it can be carried out, with those rulings largely reflecting the culture and beliefs of the day. For example, in 1879 and 1880 cases, the court ruled that the firing squad and death by electrocution, respectively, were constitutional. Later capital punishment-related Supreme Court rulings dealt with such things as burden of proof and various technicalities. A landmark 1972 ruling, Furman v. Georgia, effectively banned capital punishment in the U.S. on constitutional grounds; later rulings re-instated the death penalty in the U.S.