The State of Alabama called off the execution of Christopher Price shortly before midnight Thursday after a federal district court granted a stay of execution that was upheld by the Eleventh Circuit.
Christopher Price was 19 when he was charged with participating in a robbery during which William Lynn of Fayette County, Alabama, was killed.
Mr. Price’s life up to that point had been nightmarish. His father, who had a history of mental illness, brutalized him physically and psychologically from the time he was a toddler and violently abused his mother. Young Christopher saw his father hold guns to his mother’s head and try to drown her in a river. She fled with Christopher to Texas when he was five, then moved him from state to state as she pursued different men, many of whom violently beat Christopher.
Christopher found refuge in art, and spent his high school years honing his drawing skills, but his abusive and chaotic upbringing made him vulnerable to the influence of Bookie Coleman, a man with a history of violent crime who recruited Christopher to take part in the 1991 robbery that went terribly wrong.
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Mr. Price was too poor to hire a lawyer. It was obvious that he could not receive a fair trial and sentencing in Fayette County, where the victim was a beloved minister well known to virtually all 18,000 residents and had personal relationships with several prospective jurors. But Mr. Price’s court-appointed trial lawyer submitted only a short, generic motion asking for a change of venue, and it was denied.
At trial, the prosecution argued that Mr. Price killed the victim, despite the absence of definitive physical evidence or eyewitness testimony. Bookie Coleman pled guilty to felony murder and did not testify. Mr. Price was convicted of capital murder.
The penalty phase followed immediately and lasted less than an hour, including the court’s 25-minute charge to the jury.
The jury never heard the wealth of mitigating evidence about Mr. Price’s horrific childhood because his lawyer completely failed to conduct a pre-trial investigation or even to prepare for the penalty phase. She had contacted only one family member, Mr. Price’s mother, who was the only witness at the penalty phase and testified for a mere 15 minutes.
Counsel had received funds to obtain a psychological examination that would have explained how Mr. Price’s abuse history connected to the crime, but she failed to have the exam done and presented no expert witnesses.
Trial counsel then delegated the closing argument to a recent law school graduate with no capital defense experience who gave an anemic, incoherent 5-minute argument. Counsel failed to respond to the prosecutor’s improper argument that executing Mr. Price was “the only way” to prevent him from killing again.
Alabama is one of only two states that permit imposition of a death sentence without a unanimous jury verdict for death. Ten jurors (the minimum number needed for a death sentence) voted for a death sentence for Mr. Price, and the trial judge imposed a death sentence.
Denial of Due Process
New counsel for Mr. Price challenged his trial counsel’s ineffectiveness in a detailed petition filed in state court. The same trial judge who sentenced him to death adopted verbatim an order written by prosecutors that dismissed all of Mr. Price’s ineffectiveness claims as insufficiently pleaded.
On May 30, 2003, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals issued an unpublished memorandum decision affirming that decision, and the Alabama Supreme Court denied review.
Mr. Price filed a petition in federal court, and it was dismissed in its entirety without an evidentiary hearing. As a result, no court has heard the mitigating evidence that Mr. Price’s trial lawyer failed to investigate and present.
Method of Execution
Counsel for Mr. Price challenged Alabama’s lethal injection protocol, arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment because it risks causing severe pain and that Mr. Price should be allowed to choose nitrogen hypoxia, a new method recently adopted by Alabama lawmakers.
After a lower federal court denied Mr. Price’s petition on Friday, his lawyers appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court’s decision on Wednesday, April 10. Earlier today, a federal judge ordered a stay of execution; the State appealed and the stay was affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Shortly before 9 p.m., the State asked the United States Supreme Court to vacate the stay. The State called off the execution at approximately 11:40 p.m.; the execution warrant expired at midnight. About two hours later, the Supreme Court granted the State’s request and vacated the stay of execution, suggesting that Mr. Price waited too late.
Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, dissented, writing that the case should have been discussed by the Court in today’s Conference. He wrote that the Court’s suggestion of delay “is untenable in light of the District Court’s express finding that Price has been ‘proceeding as quickly as possible on this issue since before the execution date was set.'”
The dissent explains that Mr. Price had to show a severe risk of pain from lethal injection, an alternative that was known and readily implemented, and that the alternative would be substantially less painful. The lower federal courts found that he satisfied the first two factors, but not the third because he submitted a “preliminary” report about nitrogen hypoxia. After he submitted the final version of the report, the federal district court granted a stay; the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the stay because that new submission raised a substantial jurisdictional question.
Justice Bryer wrote:
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. At a minimum, “before acting irretrievably” to vacate a stay and allow a potentially cruel execution to proceed, the Court should decide whether the District Court did in fact lack jurisdiction to issue the stay.
The Court’s decision to vacate the stays that both courts entered, the dissent says, allows Alabama to “subject Price to a death that he alleges will cause him severe pain and needless suffering” due to the “minor oversight” of submitting a preliminary report, which “could easily be remedied by allowing the lower courts to consider the final version of the report.”
The dissented concluded, “To proceed in this way calls into question the basic principles of fairness that should underlie our criminal justice system.”