Miss. death row inmate gets last minute reprieve from Supreme Court

Published 5:01 pm Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Death row inmate Earl Wesley Berry had been baptized, eaten a last meal and cried about his imminent execution. It never happened.

The U.S. Supreme Court halted Berry’s execution just minutes before the convicted killer was scheduled to die at 6 p.m. Tuesday by lethal injection.

Berry had spent the past few days hoping for the reprieve, spending time with his lawyers and family and waiting for death. On Sunday he asked to baptized, a request prison officials granted.

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He also “cried quite a bit,” said Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps.

What he didn’t do was show remorse for the killing of Mary Bounds, a 56-year-old mother and grandmother.

Berry’s reprieve is the third granted by the justices since they agreed late last month to decide a challenge to Kentucky’s lethal injection procedures.

The decision brought an emotional response from about two dozen members of the victims’ family. Charles Bounds shook his finger at corrections officials and reporters, describing the way a drunken Berry kidnapped his wife from a church in 1987, drove her into the woods and bashed her head against a tree.

“Here comes this fella’ that takes dope and drinks and takes my wife,” Charles Bounds said. “Now you want to tell me we got a fair shake today. Be careful cause the devil can get you just as sure.”

Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia would have allowed the execution to go forward.

The court did not delay Berry’s execution indefinitely, saying the stay would remain in effect until the justices take action on Berry’s petition for review of his case. If the court decides not to review the appeal, the “stay will terminate automatically.”

If the review is granted, the court said the stay will remain in effect until a final ruling is made.

The questions raised in Berry’s petition include a request for the Supreme Court to spell out whether executions may be allowed to go forward solely because of the late filing of a challenge to the method.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied one of Berry’s appeals because it was filed so late. The petition also raises issues similar to those in the Kentucky case — whether the three-drug mixture used in lethal injections cause unnecessary pain and suffering, therefore constituting cruel and unusual punishment.

Epps said it’s harder on a family when courts wait so close to the time of a scheduled execution before issuing a stay.

“They didn’t get closure,” Epps said, adding that he didn’t mind Charles Bounds’ anger directed toward him during the news conference after the execution was called off.

“I’m glad he got it off his chest,” Epps said. “He needed to.”

Berry had already been moved to Unit 17 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, which houses the death chamber when the court’s decision was announced. However, he had not yet been strapped down and prepared for execution, Epps said.

After the court announced its decision, “We told him immediately thereafter and he just busted into tears,” Epps said.

Berry was convicted of kidnapping and killing Bounds on Nov. 29, 1987, outside the First Baptist Church in the tiny north Mississippi town of Houston. Berry was sentenced to death by a Chickasaw County jury on Oct. 28, 1988. His confession was used against him during the trial.

Epps said Berry told him that Jena Watson, Bounds’ only daughter, “has already forgiven me, but I don’t have any remorse.” It was not clear if Berry had contact with his victim’s family over the years, though Epps said he did not think so.

Berry ate about half of what would have been his last meal of barbecue pork sausage and barbecue pork chops, buttered toast, a salad heavy on the onions, mashed potatoes and gravy, pecan pie and juice.

He also spent time visiting with family and his lawyers.