BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - An Alabama death row inmate received a last-minute stay of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, keeping in place an unofficial U.S. moratorium on executions that has lasted more than four months.
The country's high court granted a reprieve to James Callahan, 61, a convicted rapist and murderer, just over an hour before he was scheduled to be put to death at 6 p.m. CST (2400 GMT) at the Holman prison in Atmore, Alabama.
It added to a series of reprieves granted by the justices to death row inmates in various states since they agreed on September 25 to decide a challenge to the lethal injection method used across the country. A ruling is expected by the end of June.
Callahan's lawyers had appealed to the Supreme Court after a U.S. appeals court rejected his request for a stay of execution on the grounds he had waited too long to bring his challenge to the lethal injection method.
He was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering 26-year-old university student Rebecca Howell, whom he abducted from a laundry mat in Jacksonville, Alabama, in February 1982.
Callahan had eaten his last meal, a cheeseburger from a slot machine at the prison, and was receiving a final visit from family members when he learned about the stay, said Brian Corbett, spokesman for Alabama's Department of Corrections.
"He was obviously relieved and the family members were overjoyed and applauded," Corbett said, adding one family member described the nail-biting, last-minute decision as cruel and unusual punishment for the prisoner.
Executions in the United States reached a 13-year low in 2007, with 42 people put to death, as states stopped carrying out the death penalty while the Supreme Court examined the challenge by two Kentucky death row inmates.
The federal government and all but one of the 36 U.S. states with the death penalty use lethal injection for executions.
Lawyers for the Kentucky inmates argue the three-chemical cocktail used in lethal injections inflicts unnecessary pain and suffering and is cruel and unusual punishment barred under the U.S. Constitution.
One convicted killer was executed in Texas hours after the Supreme Court agreed on September 25 to hear the appeal in the Kentucky case, but there have been no executions since.
Additional reporting by James Vicini in Washington; Writing by Matthew Bigg; Editing by Peter Cooney