WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court stopped the execution of Virginia death row inmate Christopher Scott Emmett on Wednesday, a move that legal experts said might signal a nationwide halt on lethal injections until the justices decide next year whether the procedure amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
The court granted the stay of execution just four hours before Emmett was to be put to death. It is the second time the justices have stopped an execution since agreeing to decide whether lethal injections carry the potential for pain that would violate constitutional standards.
“I think this is a de facto moratorium,” said Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert at Ohio State University’s law school. Since almost all executions are carried out by lethal injection, he said a halt “would mean the most profound hiatus in the operation of the death penalty in at least two decades.”
The justices review applications for stays on a case-by-case basis and gave no indication what their decision means for other death row inmates. They gave no reason for halting Emmett’s execution, saying only that the stay would last until a federal appeals court in Richmond rules on the case “or further order of this court.”
Emmett’s attorneys have brought numerous appeals, and the Supreme Court turned down his latest Oct. 1. Emmett, 36, beat a co-worker to death with a brass lamp in Danville, Va., in 2001 and then stole his money to buy crack.
“The Supreme Court has spoken, and we will follow their decision,” said David Clementson, a spokesman for Virginia Republican Attorney General Robert McDonnell, who had urged that the execution be carried out.
Democratic Gov. Timothy Kaine, who previously had delayed Emmett’s execution so the justices could consider his latest appeal, said in a statement that he “had no reason to question the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty or the jury’s decision that death was an appropriate punishment.”
The court’s action spared Kaine, who personally opposes the death penalty but has overseen four executions as governor, from having to make the decision to either halt the execution or allow it to go forward before the justices decide whether lethal injection is constitutional.
Other governors and courts are facing the same question. Executions by lethal injection have been delayed in at least six states, including Texas, which leads the nation in executions, since the court announced Sept. 25 that it was taking up the issue by accepting a Kentucky case. Other states had already suspended the use of lethal injections.
“I think you’ll see that very few states want to be the outliers when the court seems ready to step in and stop” the planned executions, Berman said.
Lethal injection is the primary method of execution in 37 of the 38 states that have the death penalty.
Even without a halt to the use of lethal injections, the pace of executions nationally is the slowest in a decade. A Texas execution carried out on Sept. 25, the day the court announced it had accepted the Kentucky case was the last.
Since accepting the case, the justices have issued stays in two executions that lower courts in Texas and Virginia had said could move forward. Tuesday night, they refused to vacate a stay that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit had issued for an Arkansas death row inmate.