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Supreme Court Stays Execution Ahead of Pivotal Case

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday to stay an execution by lethal injection in Mississippi, the third such decision halting an execution ahead of a case that will test the constitutionality of lethal injections. The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle discusses the implications for capital punishment policy.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mississippi death row inmate Earl Wesley Berry was scheduled to die last night for the murder of a woman 20 years ago. But for the third time in under two months, the Supreme Court stepped in at the last moment. The justices halted the execution because of controversies surrounding the method of lethal injection.

    Now the question is: Did that stay create a de facto moratorium on executions around the country? For answers, we turn once again to NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

    Welcome back, Marcia.

  • MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal:

    Hi, Gwen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Nineteen minutes before he was scheduled to die, he had his last meal of barbecued pork chops, I read. Why did they stay the execution?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Well, I think to understand some of the confusion that's been running throughout the states and the lower courts, it helps to see the sequence of events since September.

    At the end of September, the Supreme Court agreed to decide a challenge brought by two death row inmates to the particular drug protocol used in Kentucky to do execution by lethal injection. There are 38 states that have the death penalty; 37 of those states — Nebraska being the exception — use the same or very similar three-drug protocol.

    Since the Supreme Court decided to take the Kentucky case, it has allowed one execution by lethal injection to go forward, and it has halted three. When it has temporarily halted or stayed, as the courts say, those executions, it said nothing of substance about whether it wanted all executions by lethal injection to be delayed until it decided the Kentucky case.

    Last night was the third stay. And it's being read now as a strong signal to the states that they should postpone lethal injection executions until the Kentucky case is decided. The reason is, and the reason they considered this last stay significant, is this stay, which was granted to a Mississippi death row inmate, was the weakest of the three cases the court considered.

    That inmate had been on death row nearly 20 years, had exhausted almost all of his appeals, and he was bringing his challenge at the 11th hour, as you noted. It takes five votes to grant a stay. In that case, there were two dissenters, Justices Scalia and Justice Alito, neither of whom, including the majority, said anything as to why.

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