Doris Walker had been awake for more than 30 hours.
She had traveled from upstate New York to a relative's home in Winston-Salem and was in the midst of a panic attack about her brother's impending execution when she got the word Thursday: Charles Walker would live to see another day."I just sat on the floor and cried some more," said Doris Walker, 46, the oldest of three sisters. "That was tears of joy. ... I just would like to see him walk out of there now."
The state Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a Guilford County judge's order to stay the execution just hours before Walker was scheduled to die by lethal injection at Raleigh's Central Prison.
Walker, 39, was sentenced to death nine years ago for his role in the 1992 murder of a 20-year-old Greensboro man whose body was never found.
After his conviction, Walker exhausted a round of appeals in the state and federal courts. However, his attorneys filed a second round of appeals last month citing new issues that they believe make Walker ineligible for the death penalty.
On Monday, Guilford County Superior Court Judge John O. Craig III stayed the execution, saying he wanted to hear further arguments from defense attorneys. They contend that accomplices pointed the finger at Walker to escape more severe punishment and their testimony has never been corroborated.
They also argue that authorities found no body, blood, hair or other physical evidence linking Walker to the murder of Elmon Tito Davidson Jr.
The state Attorney General's Office on Tuesday appealed Craig's order to the N.C. Supreme Court. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper said there were no plans to appeal Thursday's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I think this means we're going to do the right thing," Jonathan Megerian, one of Walker's attorneys, said after hearing the news. "We're not going to rush to an execution."
Walker was moved back to his death row cell at about 11 a.m. Thursday - just 15 hours before his scheduled execution. He had been in the prison's death watch area near the execution chamber since Wednesday. His oldest sister and a number of other relatives planned to visit him Thursday. Doris Walker said family members had lost touch with Charles Walker more than a decade ago and only learned last month that he was on death row in North Carolina. "We were devastated," she said.
The state court's decision puts Walker's fate in limbo until next month - possibly later. But the ruling does more than buy time, Megerian said.
"I think we've got an opportunity to right a wrong," he said. "An opportunity is more valuable than time."
Without explanation, the court on Thursday denied to lift the stay of execution in a one-page order signed by newly elected Justice Paul Newby.
"This is at least a recognition that (Craig) was at least in his discretion in wanting to pause and make sure we aren't making a really awful mistake," said Richard Rosen, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor who questions Walker's death sentence.
The week's events are rare in North Carolina death penalty cases, said Gretchen Engel, an attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham who has aided Walker's defense.
Typically, those who file a second round of appeals have little success, she said.
"I can reel off the number of times a Superior Court judge was willing to take that stand at that late stage," Engel said. "That's rare enough. That the North Carolina Supreme Court allows it to stand is even rarer."
The turn of events in Walker's case is similar to what happened to death row inmate Bobby Lee Harris in January 2001, she said. Harris, convicted of killing an Onslow County man, was just 15 hours from execution when the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court's order to halt his death by lethal injection. A Superior Court judge had issued the stay of execution to give more time to consider Harris' request to overturn his death sentence based on a number of claims.
In Walker's case, his attorneys have until Jan. 17 to file legal paperwork to support their claims that he is ineligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors then have 30 days to respond. A hearing might not be scheduled until March if the judge wants to hear from both sides, Megerian said.
Davidson was murdered by Walker and two others inside a Greensboro housing project apartment in 1992, according to trial testimony. His body was thrown in a trash bin and later disappeared. The jury determined that Walker did not fire the fatal shot but acted in concert with the others with the intent to kill Davidson.
Walker also has asked Gov. Mike Easley to reduce his sentence to life in prison without parole.
\ Contact Eric Collins at 373-7077 or firstname.lastname@example.org