By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Attorneys for a condemned Virginia killer were scrambling yesterday to avert his scheduled execution tonight by lethal injection, the same method that the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing to determine whether it is cruel and unusual punishment.
Christopher Scott Emmett is scheduled to be given lethal drugs at 9 p.m. at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va. His attorneys were urging the U.S. Supreme Court and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to halt the proceeding, arguing that it would be wrong to execute Emmett with a method that might be deemed unconstitutional.
"The commonwealth of Virginia should not go forward with this execution,'' said Matthew Engle, an attorney for Emmett, who was convicted of fatally beating a man with a brass lamp during a robbery. The Supreme Court, which recently announced that it would use a Kentucky case to examine the constitutionality of lethal injection, had not responded late yesterday to Emmett's motion for a stay of execution.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond has twice declined to halt the execution, and the Virginia attorney general's office is urging the Supreme Court to do the same. "The procedures Virginia uses to carry out death sentences by lethal injection have been reviewed by judges multiple times and always found to be humane and constitutional," said David Clementson, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R). "Further delay in this case is not justified."
Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Kaine, said the governor is "closely monitoring court activity in this case" and is evaluating Emmett's petition for a stay. Virginia governors have traditionally waited until appeals are exhausted before acting on clemency requests. Kaine, a Catholic who personally opposes the death penalty, has denied clemency petitions from four other death row inmates. He delayed a fifth execution but has not granted clemency.
The debate over Emmett's case thrust Virginia into the forefront of a national dispute over lethal injection, one that has intensified since the Supreme Court agreed to examine the widely used method. A ruling on the issue is expected sometime next year.
States began using lethal injection in 1978 as a more humane alternative to electrocution or the gas chamber, but some studies have shown that the combination of three toxic chemicals that is used can be unreliable, causing inmates to suffer excruciating pain before they die.
Since the Supreme Court took the Kentucky case, executions by lethal injection have been delayed in at least six states, including a Texas case in which the high court granted the stay. The latest was Nevada, which on Monday granted condemned murderer William Patrick Castillo a last-minute reprieve. Overall, more than a dozen courts, state commissions and governors have delayed lethal injections nationwide over the past several years, some before the recent Supreme Court action.
"Stays are being granted in almost all executions, and I believe the trend will solidify," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that studies capital punishment. "It makes no sense to set dates until the Supreme Court has ruled on this lethal injection issue."
But other states, such as Georgia, intend to proceed with executions, and Joshua Marquis, who serves on the board of the National District Attorneys Association, said death penalty opponents are being "disingenuous" in seeking stays. "The people who want to stop these executions believe that the very act of killing someone is wrong, so if they can come up with any reason at all, they will," he said.
Emmett killed co-worker John F. Langley with the lamp after Langley refused to lend him $100 to buy crack cocaine. He confessed to repeatedly hitting Langley on the head in a motel room the two were sharing in Danville, Va., in April 2001, while they did a roofing job. Emmett was sentenced to death by a jury in October 2001.
The Supreme Court this month declined to review Emmett's death sentence, although two justices issued a statement critical of the way Virginia had pursued the execution.
Virginia inmates can choose to be executed by lethal injection or the electric chair. The last inmate executed in the state was John Yancey Schmitt by lethal injection in November 2006. Emmett has not chosen a method of execution. Under state law, however, inmates who make no choice automatically die by lethal injection.
Staff writer Robert Barnes contributed to this report.