Fighting a ticking clock and an unresolved legal battle, Alabama on Thursday halted plans to execute an inmate saying there would not be time to carry out the lethal injection that evening even if a court stay was lifted.
A federal judge late Thursday night stayed the execution of 46-year-old Christopher Lee Price to weigh his challenge to Alabama’s execution process. Alabama urged the U.S. Supreme Court to let them carry out the execution, but prison officials announced at 11:34 p.m. they would not have time to carry out the lethal injection that evening even if the court ruled in the state’s favor.
Because the death warrant setting Price’s execution date expired at midnight, the state would now have to seek a new date if the courts allow the execution to proceed.
Price was convicted of using a sword and dagger to fatally stab pastor Bill Lynn in 1991 as he prepared Christmas gifts for his grandchildren.
Prosecutors said Lynn, 57, was at his Fayette County home getting toys ready for his grandchildren when the power was cut. Lynn went outside to check the fuse box when he was killed, according to court filings.
Lynn’s wife, Bessie Lynn, testified that she was in an upstairs bedroom watching television when she heard a noise. She said she looked out a window and saw a person dressed in black in a karate stance, holding a sword above her husband’s head. Lynn, a Church of Christ minister, had returned home with his wife from a church service before the slaying.
Bessie Lynn said she went outside to help her husband, but two men ordered her back in the house and demanded money and any jewelry and weapons they had. An autopsy showed that Lynn had been cut or stabbed more than 30 times.
A second man, Kelvin Coleman, pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
The decision to halt the scheduled execution concluded a lengthy evening as the victim’s family and the inmate awaited word about whether the courts would let the state proceed with the lethal injection that was originally scheduled for 6 p.m.
Family members of the slain pastor, including Lynn’s wife and daughters, had planned to witness the lethal injection, prison system spokesman Samantha Banks said.
Price on Wednesday had married his fiance in the visitation yard of the prison, after making a final request to hold the wedding ceremony before his execution.
He ordered two pints of Turtle Tracks ice cream for his final meal.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Thursday said the state would continue to pursue the execution. Marshall said Lynn’s family was “re-victimized by a killer trying to evade his just punishment.”
“This 11th-hour stay for death row inmate Christopher Price will do nothing to serve the ends of justice. Indeed, it has inflicted the opposite — injustice, in the form of justice delayed,” Marshall said.
The last-minute bid to stop the execution centered on Price’s request to be put to death by breathing nitrogen gas, an execution method the state has authorized but not used.
Alabama in 2018 authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative for carrying out death sentences. However, the state has not used nitrogen in an execution or developed procedures to do so.
Price’s attorneys argued that Alabama’s lethal injection drug combination has led to “botched” executions and that nitrogen hypoxia would be less painful.
A federal judge on Thursday night stayed the execution for 60 days, and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals maintained a stay. The U.S. Supreme Court then ruled the execution could proceed.
Attorneys for the state had responded that Price was only seeking to delay his execution and had missed a deadline to select nitrogen as his preferred execution method after the 2018 law was approved.
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.”
Price’s attorneys pointed to the fact that Alabama has allowed inmates to select nitrogen.
According to the state, 48 of the more than 170 inmates on death row have elected to be put to death by nitrogen hypoxia. Proponents of the change argued nitrogen would be readily available and hypoxia would be a painless way to die.
Alabama has carried out one execution so far this year. In February, inmate Dominique Ray was executed for the 1995 murder of a 15-year-old girl.