World and Nation

Supreme Court Ruling Prompts Stay of Execution in Alabama

Amid renewed questions by many states about the future of lethal injection in capital punishment, Alabama ordered a rare stay in an execution that had been scheduled for Thursday night.

Gov. Bob Riley said the state would halt the planned execution of Tommy Arthur while it came up with a new formula for lethal injection to make sure prisoners are completely unconscious before they are killed.

The stay reflected what appears to be emerging as a patchwork, state-by-state response to a decision on Tuesday by the Supreme Court to look at whether lethal injection causes unnecessary suffering.

Some states, even ardent pro-death penalty ones like Alabama, are slowing down. Others, like Texas, are cruising full speed ahead. Texas executed a prisoner a few hours after the court’s decision on Tuesday. Eleven states have stopped lethal injections altogether, as litigation proceeds.

“It’s going to be a hodgepodge,” said George Kendall, a veteran civil rights lawyer in New York. “Some states will shut down, and in some it will be business as usual.”

Texas officials maintained that nothing had changed and that executions could proceed.

Still, the Supreme Court’s decision to consider a challenge by two Kentucky death row inmates seemed certain to at least slow the pace, particularly in Southern states. Death penalty lawyers in North Carolina and Virginia, for instance, are already asking for delays both in executions and the development of new procedures for them.

“I think it will hold up quite a few executions,” said Richard C. Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group opposed to capital punishment.

In Alabama, where politicians rarely challenge the death penalty, the state is developing a “consciousness awareness test” for inmates being executed, but state officials maintained that the action was unconnected to the Supreme Court decision.

“Somebody would come in and do something to assess consciousness, after the anesthesia is delivered,” Assistant Attorney General Clay Crenshaw said. For now, he said, “the consciousness-awareness is being done visually by the warden.”

In a separate case next week, a federal judge in Alabama will hear arguments from two death-row inmates that lethal injection is unconstitutional.