NEW ORLEANS, JULY 25 -- A man convicted of rape and murder was executed even though his case was technically still alive, in a bizarre paradox resulting from U.S. Supreme Court rules, his lawyer says.

Willie Watson, 31, of New Orleans, was put to death Friday in Louisiana's electric chair for the 1981 kidnap, rape and murder of Kathy Newman, 25, a Tulane University medical student.

The Supreme Court, short one member, split 4 to 4 on whether to grant a request to halt Watson's execution.

By tying, the court created the peculiar situation of allowing the execution to proceed while keeping the case alive, said Chicago attorney Jed Stone, who represented Watson.

It takes three votes on the high court to keep an issue active, but it takes five votes to stay an execution. "They literally gave Willie the right to litigate his question before the court but not the right to remain alive," Stone said.

Stone said Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards (D) could have acted as the ninth justice on the court by delaying Watson's death, but Edwards refused, and the execution took place.

"The basic absurdity of the whole thing is a tie means the man dies," New Orleans defense attorney Ralph Whalen said. "It's an embarrassment to be associated with a system like that."

Justices Thurgood Marshall, William J. Brennan Jr. and Harry A. Blackmun wrote in their dissent that they saw no difference between Watson's case and that of Leslie Lowenfield, another Louisiana death-row inmate.

The Supreme Court had ordered a stay of Lowenfield's execution in June so it could consider the constitutionality of the state's death-penalty statute.