US Supreme Court asked to halt Alabama execution

Published 8:57 pm Wednesday, January 14, 2009

MOBILE — Attorneys for James Harvey Callahan, who came within one hour of execution almost a year ago, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt his lethal injection, which is scheduled for Thursday for the 1982 murder of a Jacksonville woman.

The petition for a stay of execution was filed Wednesday — one day after the Alabama Supreme Court refused without comment to block the execution, the first of five set for the first five months of the new year.

The high court in Washington gave no indication when it would rule.

Callahan was twice convicted for the Feb. 3, 1982, slaying of Rebecca Suzanne Howell, who was abducted from a coin-operated laundry. The body of the 26-year-old Jacksonville State University student was found weeks later, dumped in a creek. She died from suffocation, according to records.

Callahan, now 62, faces execution at Holman Prison near Atmore. He came within an hour of execution on Jan. 31, 2008, before the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay during court arguments over the use of lethal injection.

In his U.S. Supreme Court petition Wednesday, Montgomery attorney Randall S. Susskind of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative said a stay should be granted because of what happened at Callahan’s trial in Calhoun County.

Susskind said the trial judge participated in Callahan’s jail interrogation and later rejected a defense request that he step down from the trial because he could become a potential witness about the interrogation.

State prosecutors contend Callahan has exhausted his state and federal appeals and that the trial judge issue was resolved in an earlier Callahan appeal. He raised the same claim in state court over 18 years ago and in a federal appeals court several years ago, prosecutors said in a Supreme Court response.

Prosecutors in the state attorney general’s office said the judge, who presided over both Callahan trials, did not participate in Callahan’s interrogation, but acted to ensure that the lawyer who told him that he might represent Callahan was able to talk to Callahan.

If the high court rejects Callahan’s bid for a stay, Callahan’s lawyers still could ask Gov. Bob Riley to intervene before his 6 p.m. execution Thursday.

Callahan was moved to a cell next to the execution room Tuesday afternoon and visited with his sister and brother-in-law Wednesday morning.

Callahan is one of five inmates set for execution in the first five months of this year, an unusual group of executions for Alabama, which had no executions in 2008 while courts handled challenges to lethal injection and upheld it as a method of execution.

The last inmate executed was Luther Williams on Aug. 23, 2007.

Currently, Alabama has 206 death row inmates, including four women.