(CNN) -- A federal judge has stayed what would be the nation's first military execution since 1961, saying the U.S. soldier -- who was convicted of rape and murder two decades ago -- should have more time to pursue a federal appeal.
Pvt. Ronald Gray has been on the military's death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, since 1988. A court-martial panel sitting at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, unanimously convicted him of committing two murders and other crimes in the Fayetteville, North Carolina, area and sentenced him to death.
Last month, the Army said Gray was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection December 10 at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.
But in an order issued November 26, U.S. District Judge Richard Rogers of Kansas said that a stay is necessary so Gray can pursue his federal appeal. Rogers ruled on a motion filed by Gray's attorneys, who asked for time to challenge the legality of his convictions and sentence.
Government attorneys have asked Rogers to reconsider his decision, saying that Gray seeks a stay "apparently based on the premise that at some point he will identify a new legal issue or discover new evidence" upon which to appeal and that Gray "continues to delay unnecessarily."
Gray has had ample time to appeal, the Justice Department attorneys said.
In a response filed Tuesday, Gray's defense attorneys point out that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal in March 2001, and "since then, it has taken the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice and the Office of the President over seven years to approve as final Private Gray's sentence of death. The significant constitutional issues presented on the face of Private Gray's case ... have obviously troubled the decision-makers, as evidenced by the years they had his case under advisement."
President Bush approved Gray's death sentence in July, making it final, defense attorneys write in the filing.
Inmates sentenced to death in state and federal courts are given a year to file federal appeals after their death sentence becomes final, they claim, and members of the military under death sentences should receive the same consideration.
"Private Gray is seeking federal habeas court review for the first time and he has not delayed commencing this action," defense attorney Thomas Bath wrote. "In fact, until the president approved his death sentence, there was no action available."
Gray was convicted of raping and killing a female Army private and a civilian near his post at Fort Bragg. He also was convicted of the rape and attempted murder of another fellow soldier in her barracks at the post.
Military and civilian courts both found Gray responsible for the crimes, which were committed between April 1986 and January 1987. Gray pleaded guilty to two murders and five rapes in a civilian court and was sentenced to three consecutive and five concurrent life terms.
The general court-martial at Fort Bragg then tried him and in April 1988 convicted him of two murders, an attempted murder and three rapes.
Bush's July action, the Army said in a statement at the time, followed "completion of a full appellate process, which upheld the conviction and sentence to death."
Members of the U.S. military have been executed throughout history, but just 10 have been executed with presidential approval since 1951 under the Uniform Code of Military justice, the military's modern-day legal system. The Army has also sought Bush's authorization to execute another condemned soldier, Pvt. Dwight Loving, who was convicted of killing and robbing two cab drivers in 1988.
The last U.S. military execution was in 1961, when Army Pvt. John Bennett was hanged for raping and attempting to kill an 11-year-old Austrian girl. Bennett was sentenced in 1955.
The U.S. military hasn't actively pursued an execution for a military prisoner since President Kennedy commuted a death sentence in 1962. Nine men are currently on military death row.
CNN's Mike Mount contributed to this report.
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