James Earl Reed had been scheduled to die at 6 p.m. Friday. A federal judge in Columbia issued the stay at 5:40 p.m. after a defense attorney's last-minute request for the execution to be halted. Five hours later, the appeals court vacated the stay and defense lawyers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution. The state was fighting that possibility.
Under the state's execution order, the death sentence had to be carried out by midnight or it would have to be rescheduled. By 11 p.m., as the high court considered the defense's request, witnesses for the execution were being brought to the death chamber.
Reed, 49, has been on death row since 1996, when he was convicted of murdering Joseph and Barbara Lafayette in their Charleston County home two years earlier. Prosecutors said he was looking for an ex-girlfriend.
During his trial, Reed fired his attorney and represented himself, denying the killings despite a confession and arguing that no physical evidence placed him at the scene. Jurors found him guilty and decided he should die.
In the request for the stay, the defense attorney cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision the day before regarding defendants' rights to represent themselves, according to the order by U.S. District Judge Henry Floyd. The high court on Thursday said a defendant can be judged competent to stand trial, yet incapable of acting as his own lawyer.
Reed would be the first person executed by electric chair in the U.S. in nearly a year and South Carolina's first since 2004.
In South Carolina, anyone sentenced to death may choose the electric chair or lethal injection. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, eight other states electrocute inmates.