AUSTIN, Texas - Just minutes before his scheduled execution last night, the U.S. Supreme Court granted an indefinite stay to Delma Banks Jr., 44, a black man sent to death row after an all-white jury convicted him in the murder and robbery of a white teen-ager 23 years ago.
Defense lawyers said the court's order suggested that the justices were undecided about the case and want time to consider whether to take it on.
Members of Banks' family and George Kendall of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who is leading Banks' appeal, were outside the death chamber in the Huntsville prison where Banks was to have been killed by lethal injection at 6 p.m. "We were told, 'A stay has been granted. You're free to go,'" Kendall said.
Banks, who would have been the 300th person executed in Texas since the state resumed capital punishment in 1976, had already had his last meal - cheeseburgers - and was to be strapped to a gurney for his execution when the stay was granted.
In its order, the Supreme Court said that the stay of execution would remain in effect pending the court's decision on hearing the case. If it decides not to hear the case, the order said, "this stay shall terminate automatically."
Banks' execution could be rescheduled as soon as 30 days later, and he could have another chance to appeal his conviction and sentence to the state.
Kendall said the stay suggested "serious debate that could not be resolved" among the nine justices.
Jim Marcus, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents Texans sentenced to death, said: "Clearly it's rare for the court to step in and stay a case at the last minute, so it's clearly troubled by one or more aspects of this case."
In the face of questions raised about the Banks case, prosecutors have acknowledged errors in the trial but remain confident of the outcome. "Do I have any doubts that Delma Banks did this?" said James Elliott, the assistant Bowie County prosecutor. "Absolutely none. It's beyond reasonable doubt. It's no doubt. This is no Girl Scout cookie salesman."
Banks' prospects for an 11th-hour stay appeared more hopeful than those of other inmates because a team of former federal judges and prosecutors, including former FBI Director William S. Sessions, had appealed to the Supreme Court to halt the execution.
Sessions was joined by John J. Gibbons, former chief judge of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia; Timothy K. Lewis, a former 3rd Circuit judge; and Thomas Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney.