The U.S. Supreme Court lifted a stay of execution yesterday for a convicted Virginia killer who had argued that the state's method of carrying out lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.

The 5 to 4 ruling clears a Circuit Court judge to set an execution date for James Edward Reid, 58, who was sentenced to death for the 1996 slaying of an 87-year-old Christiansburg, Va., woman.

Reid's attorneys asserted that the combination of chemicals Virginia uses to carry out executions could cause the inmate to "consciously suffer an excruciatingly painful and protracted death."

Reid's execution was halted by a federal appeals court one day before its scheduled date last December.

The high court gave no reason for granting a motion by Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) to lift the stay. Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer dissented.

James Turk, one of Reid's attorneys, said the defense will file a request for clemency with Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). Turk said Reid's life should be spared because a car accident left him suffering from brain damage and he has a long history of alcohol abuse.

In 1997, Reid was convicted of capital murder and other charges in the slaying of Annie Lester. According to court records, Reid had occasionally done some odd jobs for Lester and the two had discussed the bible.

Authorities said Reid went to Lester's house in October 1996, telling a friend he was going there to do some work. Once inside, he stabbed Lester with scissors and struck her on the head with a can of milk, court documents state. He also took off her clothes and ransacked her bedroom.

Reid's attorneys had argued that the first chemical used in a lethal injection, a fast-acting anesthesia, could quickly wear off, even as the other drugs are administered. A second chemical paralyzes the inmate, rendering the inmate unable to show pain, the attorneys said. They said the third chemical, which causes cardiac arrest, could leave the inmate in extreme pain.

Tim Murtaugh, Kilgore's spokesman, said that there is "no validity" in Reid's claim and that Virginia's method of carrying out executions has been tested in the courts.

Murtaugh also noted that Lester was stabbed 22 times. "If anyone had grounds to complain about undue pain, we believe it should be she," he said.