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Texas inmate wins reprieve

Huntsville_A Texas death row inmate received a reprieve from execution about 90 minutes before he could have been put to death Tuesday after lawyers questioned whether the state's lethal injection procedures were legal.

Derrick Sonnier, convicted of killing a suburban Houston woman and her 2-year-old son, would have been the first Texas inmate put to death in nearly nine months. Executions had been on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considered a similar challenge to injection procedures in a Kentucky case.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which granted the stay Tuesday, halted the execution in October of condemned inmate Heliberto Chi on the same issue: that lethal injection procedures were unconstitutionally cruel.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled six weeks ago that the Kentucky injection method was constitutional and cleared the way for executions to resume nationally. But Texas' highest criminal court hasn't ruled in the Chi case, one of two Texas capital cases with similar claims.

"If they've got these cases up there, it really just kind of violates basic legal principles" to hold executions, said David Dow, one of the lawyers who filed the late appeal in Sonnier's case.

"My hat's off to the CCA," Dow said of the criminal court and its reprieve. "I didn't think they would (grant it)."

Sonnier, 40, declined to comment from a small holding cell just a few feet from the death chamber.

He was told about the reprieve by a senior warden and was allowed to call family and friends to let them know about it before he was returned to death row, about 45 miles to the east at a prison near Livingston.

"I respect the court's decision," said Roe Wilson, a Harris County assistant district attorney who was handling Sonnier's case and sought the execution. "This is a terrible offense. I feel for the victims' relatives, and I hope this is an issue that is resolved soon."

It was not clear how the reprieve will affect the other 13 executions scheduled in Texas over coming months, including two more in the next two weeks.

Three condemned prisoners around the country have been put to death since the Supreme Court ruled on the Kentucky case.

Dow said that if the Court of Criminal Appeals fails to rule soon on the lethal injection cases pending before it, the other executions in the state would be challenged and probably would have to be delayed.

"My guess is they're going to kick those cases out," he said.

Sonnier was condemned for the 1991 deaths of Melody Flowers, 27, and her young son, Patrick. She was stabbed, beaten with a hammer until the tool's handle broke and strangled. Her child was stabbed eight times. Their bodies were dumped in a bathtub.

"He's maintained his innocence and still does, but it's been rejected by every court," Jani Maselli, one of Sonnier's lawyers, said Tuesday.

Michael Graczyk, AP Writer, © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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