U.S. Supreme Court upholds Missouri stay of execution

Wednesday, October 20, 2010
In this photo provided by the Missouri Department of Corrections is Roderick Nunley who has been sentenced to death for the 1989 abduction, rape and stabbing death of a Kansas City-area teenager. A federal judge on Monday, Oct. 18, 2010, ordered Missouri to hold off on Nunley's execution ruling that lingering issues involving his sentencing merit being sorted out. Nunley had been scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday at an eastern Missouri prison in Bonne Terre. (AP Photo/Missouri Department of Corrections)

ST. LOUIS -- The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to reverse a lower court's decision to stay the execution of a Missouri man who'd been scheduled to be put to death early Wednesday.

The high court ruled late Tuesday to deny the state's request to vacate a stay of execution granted to Roderick Nunley by a federal judge in Kansas City. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also turned down the state's request earlier in the day. Nunley, 45, was one of two Missouri inmates condemned for the 1989 abduction, rape and stabbing death of a Kansas City-area teenager.

The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling marked the latest last-minute legal victory for Roderick Nunley. On Monday, a Kansas City federal judge ruled the inmate was entitled to the execution stay while the Missouri Supreme Court considered his latest appeal over due-process claims.

The state swiftly challenged Tuesday's ruling and asked the entire 8th Circuit court to reverse the decision, which was made by a three-judge panel, in hopes of getting Nunley's scheduled 12:01 a.m. today execution at an eastern Missouri prison back on track. But the 8th Circuit rejected the request without comment.

The state was expected to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and throw out the stays.

Among other things, the Missouri Attorney General's Office argued Nunley was too late to challenge specific claims about his sentence, having squandered years to argue the matter in courts.

"With every victory, the chances get better," said Jennifer Herndon, one of Nunley's attorneys. "Certainly, I guess I feel cautiously positive about it."

In issuing the execution stay Monday, Chief U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. found Nunley was entitled to the delay to argue that his sentence should have been determined by a jury. Gaitan put the matter back with the state's high court to decide whether the right to a jury should be retroactively applied to Nunley's case, as permitted in some cases by subsequent U.S. and state Supreme Court rulings.

Attorney General Chris Koster's office quickly countered, asking the 8th Circuit to reverse Gaitan's ruling and put the execution back on track, claiming among other things claim that Nunley sat on his due-process issue for years before finally filing it Sept. 30. The state's appeal called Nunley's delay in pressing the claim "unexplained and unexplainable" while also casting it as "abusive."

But the 8th Circuit panel, in a two-paragraph opinion, agreed that Gaitan's court crafted a "well-reasoned" ruling and "did not abuse its discretion to grant a stay to fully develop the record and decide the [due-process] issue."

Nunley also has sought clemency from Gov. Jay Nixon.

Nunley, 45, and accomplice Michael Taylor had hoped to avoid a death sentence when they decided against a jury trial, pleaded guilty and took their chances in 1991 with Alvin Randall, a Jackson County judge who never had sentenced a convict to death and was reputedly a death-penalty opponent. Randall sentenced both men to death.

Both men appealed, accusing prosecutors of racism and alleging Randall had been drinking before the sentencing.

Though a St. Louis circuit judge later vindicated Randall by ruling that that judge had had an alcoholic drink during his lunch break but was not impaired during the sentencing a short time later, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered new sentencing hearings. In 1994, both men again were sentenced to death by a different judge, rather than a jury as Herndon says they would have then preferred.

"With Roderick, the meat of his case is that all he ever wanted was jury sentencing. That's what he deserved," Herndon said Tuesday. "To have somebody at least give some credence to that claim is a step in the right direction."

Taylor was hours from being executed in 2006 when the procedure was halted. His execution date remains unscheduled.

Authorities said Nunley and Taylor were on drugs when they stole a car then abducted 15-year-old Ann Harrison from a school bus stop near her home. Taylor raped the girl in the basement of Nunley's mother's house before the men forced her into the car's trunk, bound her and stabbed her 10 times out of concern she would identify them.

The men abandoned the car with Harrison's body in the trunk. Nunley later gave a videotaped confession.

With just one exception, Missouri executions have been on hold since early 2006 over concerns about whether they violate the U.S. Constitution's guarantee against undue suffering. That year, a federal judge halted executions in the state after a surgeon who previously supervised them testified he was dyslexic, sometimes transposed numbers and operated without written procedures or supervision.

The state then developed written protocols that later were upheld by the same federal judge who halted the executions. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, essentially clearing the way to resume executions.

Missouri has executed 67 men since the death penalty was reinstated in 1989, but only once since October 2005.

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