WASHINGTON A Mississippi death row inmate received a last-minute stay of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, adding to a series of reprieves since the justices last month agreed to rule on the lethal injection method.
The Supreme Court granted a stay of execution for Earl Wesley Berry 19 minutes before he was set to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. Central Time (7 p.m. EDT) at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the prison said.
Berry had eaten his last meal and said goodbye to family members but at the time of the stay had not been moved to the execution chamber just a few feet (meters) from his cell, said Tara Booth, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
Of the nine Supreme Court members, only Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito said they would deny Berry's request for a stay of execution.
Berry's lawyers had asked the Supreme Court to stop the execution until the high court rules on whether the commonly used lethal injection method constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
On September 25, the high court agreed to decide a challenge to the three-chemical cocktail used under lethal injection procedures in Kentucky, procedures similar to those used in Mississippi and other states.
There was an execution in Texas on September 25 but there have been none since as executions have been put on hold in a number of states, including Texas, which performs the most by far.
Berry was sentenced to death for the 1987 murder of Mary Bounds. She was beaten to death after leaving choir practice at her church and her body was found in the woods just off a road near Houston, Mississippi.
A U.S. appeals court based in New Orleans had rejected Berry's appeal and cited its clear precedent that "death sentenced inmates may not wait until execution is imminent before filing an action to enjoin a state's method of carrying it out."
Berry's lawyers appealed and asked the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of execution, which the justices granted. Over the past month, the Supreme Court also has granted stays of execution in cases from Virginia and Texas, and refused to allow an Arkansas execution to take place.
So far this year, 42 people have been executed in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Last year, there were 53 executions.
All but one of the 37 U.S. states that now have the death penalty and the federal government use lethal injection for executions. The only exception is Nebraska, which requires electrocution.
The last-minute decision meant Berry went through rituals common to death row inmates prior to execution.
He received visits on his final day from his parents, two brothers and a sister and at 4:35 p.m. (5:35 p.m. EDT) was offered a final meal that included a turkey salad, cabbage, a biscuit, corn, peas and coffee, the prison Web site said.
At that time officers said Berry was "somber" but he had not requested a sedative, prison authorities said. They gave no details on his reaction to the stay.
(Additional reporting by Matt Bigg in Atlanta)