WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court blocked a scheduled execution at the last minute, keeping in place a de facto moratorium on capital punishment while it considers the constitutional question over how lethal injection is administered.
The U.S. Supreme Court halted the scheduled Thursday execution of Alabama inmate James Harvey Callahan.
The justices without comment Thursday delayed indefinitely the Thursday evening execution of James Harvey Callahan, who sits on Alabama's death row for a 1982 murder. The high court announcement came about an hour before he was scheduled to die at Holman prison.
A federal appeals court in Atlanta, Georgia, had lifted a previous stay of execution Wednesday, saying Callahan missed crucial deadlines to file briefs challenging the method of execution.
That prompted his lawyers to submit an emergency application with the Supreme Court.
Several lower federal courts have been divided over the statute of limitations question in these kinds of last-minute capital appeals, and the high court has put off consideration of two similar pending cases from Ohio until it deals with the lethal injection question.
The Supreme Court has not allowed any executions to take place since late September, when it agreed to review whether Kentucky's lethal injection protocols -- involving a three-drug cocktail -- constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Oral arguments in that case were held in early January, and a ruling is expected by late June.
The justices have taken an informal, case-by-case approach with individual inmate appeals, refusing to issue a blanket ban on capital punishment. Nevertheless, their actions have essentially delayed executions nationwide.
If the justices ultimately rule lethal injection is unconstitutional, they could order states to completely revise their execution procedures and training, an administrative and legal process that could take years.
Thirty-five of the 36 states with capital punishment use lethal injection as the main form of execution, including Alabama.
Callahan, 61, was convicted of the kidnap, rape and murder of college student Rebecca Howell, almost 26 years ago. Court records show the victim was abducted from a coin laundry in Jacksonville, Alabama, molested and then strangled. Her body was dumped in a creek. E-mail to a friend
All About U.S. Supreme Court