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Alabama inmate who wanted nitrogen spared lethal injection

KIM CHANDLER
FILE - This undated file photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows Christopher Lee Price. A federal judge on Thursday evening, April 11, 2019, has halted the planned execution of Price, who was convicted of the sword-and-dagger stabbing death of a pastor. U.S. District Judge Kristi K. DuBose issued the stay two hours before the scheduled lethal injection of 46-year-old Price. (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP, File)

ATMORE, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama inmate convicted in the 1991 sword-and-dagger slaying of a pastor was spared a lethal injection when his death warrant expired before a divided U.S. Supreme Court voted early Friday to let the execution proceed.

A federal judge on Thursday blocked the execution of Christopher Lee Price to weigh his challenge to Alabama's lethal injection procedure. Justices voted 5-4 early Friday morning to let the execution proceed, but the death warrant had expired two hours earlier at the stroke of midnight.

Alabama is expected to seek a new execution date from a state court.

"This evening, the state of Alabama witnessed a miscarriage of justice," Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement.

Price, 46, had asked to be put to death by breathing nitrogen gas. His lawyers argue that it's a less painful alternative to the lethal combination of drugs that led to "botched" executions in the state.

The high court's order and dissenting opinion underscored the divide between the court's conservative and liberal justices over 11th-hour execution challenges.

"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," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissent.

Breyer admonished court conservatives for overruling two lower court stays "in the middle of the night" without discussing it further at a morning conference.

The Supreme Court majority, in vacating the lower court's stay, sided with the state and said Price had waited too late to bring his challenge.

Justices on April 1 voted 5-4 against a Missouri inmate who said lethal injection would cause severe pain because of a tumor in his throat. Justice Neil Gorsuch's said judges should guard against efforts to use challenges to the method of execution "as tools to interpose unjustified delay."

Alabama authorized nitrogen hypoxia in 2018 as an alternative for carrying out death sentences, but has yet to try it and hasn't developed procedures to do so.

When Alabama authorized the new execution method, it gave inmates a 30-day window to request execution by nitrogen and 48 of the more than 170 inmates on death row did so, according to court filings.

Alabama contends that Price missed the deadline to request nitrogen, and that even though nitrogen hypoxia is authorized under state law, it is currently unavailable because the state has been unable to "procure the means for executing someone with nitrogen gas."

The governor and state Attorney General Steve Marshall said they would continue to pursue the death sentence for Price, who was convicted of using a sword and dagger to fatally stab Church of Christ pastor Bill Lynn in 1991 as he prepared Christmas gifts for his grandchildren.

"This horrendous crime left Pastor Lynn's wife and family to grieve, and now, almost 30 years later, the family is still left with no closure," Ivey said.

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.

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 appeals process made for a tense and lengthy Thursday as the victim's family and the inmate awaited rulings from the courts. His lethal injection had been scheduled for 6 p.m., and Lynn's wife and daughters had planned to witness it, prisons spokesman Samantha Banks said.

On Wednesday, Price married his fiance in the visitation yard of the prison. His final request to hold the wedding ceremony before his execution. He also ordered two pints of turtle tracks ice cream for his final meal.

Facing a ticking clock and an unresolved legal battle to lift the stay, prison officials announced about 30 minutes before midnight that they could not carry out the execution before his death warrant expired.

Alabama has carried out one execution so far this year, executing Dominique Ray in February for the 1995 murder of a 15-year-old girl.

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Associated Press writer Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.

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This story has corrected who was convicted of murder to Price and Coleman's first name to Kelvin and corrected that the U.S. Supreme Court had not allowed the execution to proceed.