Breyer Signals Tension Surge on Death-Penalty Cases

WASHINGTON (CN) – Unable to muster enough votes Friday, the Supreme Court’s liberal minority signed onto a biting dissent that shows an increasing division on death-penalty cases at the court.

This undated file photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows Christopher Lee Price. (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP, File)

“Should anyone doubt that death sentences in the United States can be carried out in an arbitrary way, let that person review the following circumstances as they have been presented to our court this evening,” Justice Stephen Beyer wrote, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. 

The dissent comes after the conservative wing of the court voted to vacate a stay of execution granted to Christopher Price in Alabama.

Price, who was convicted of the 1991 murder of pastor William Lynn, contends that the state’s three-drug lethal-injection protocol will cause extreme pain and that it would be more humane to kill him in a gas chamber. 

Though the state court found the inmate’s evidence credible, Breyer notes that the conservative wing of the court hastily overturned the stay on Thursday night rather than wait a few hours to discuss the case during a Friday morning conference.  

“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.”

Breyer noted that the jurisdictional issue presented by the state warrants fuller briefing. 

“It is possible that Price was given no more than 72 hours to decide how he wanted to die,” he wrote. “That is not a reason to override the lower courts’ discretionary determination that the equitable factors warrant a stay.”

Price’s appeal comes nearly two weeks after the Supreme Court refused a similar challenge to lethal injection from Russell Bucklew, a Missouri inmate with a rare blood disorder.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority in the case that “courts should police carefully against attempts to use such challenges as tools to interpose unjustified delay.”

Alabama Attorney General Steven Marshall issued a statement Friday where he said that Price’s legal fight has revictimized the family of his victim. Marshall did not return a request for comment Monday.

Because the Supreme Court wrangling stretched so late into the night on Thursday, Alabama must set a new execution date for Price.

Aaron Michael Katz, an attorney for Price with the Boston firm Ropes and Gray, did not return request for comment.

In a separate order, Ginsburg, the court voted 5-4 against a new bid by Price for a stay of execution. 

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