Texas judges halt execution over mental health appeal

Inmate would have been first in US to receive death penalty since botched execution in Oklahoma two weeks ago

Robert Campbell is pictured in this undated photo courtesy of Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice / Handout via Reuters

A federal appeals court has stayed the scheduled execution of convicted killer Robert James Campbell in Texas so his attorneys can pursue appeals on the grounds that he is mentally impaired and ineligible for the death penalty.  He would have been the first U.S. inmate put to death since a botched execution in Oklahoma two weeks ago.

Campbell, 41, had been set to die Tuesday evening for killing a 20-year-old Houston bank teller.

His appeals challenged the state's plan to use a drug for which it will not reveal the source — as was the case with drugs used in the Oklahoma execution — as well as claiming mental impairment.

"I am happy. The Lord prevailed," Campbell said from a cell just outside the death chamber in Huntsville.

The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted his punishment about 2 1/2 hours before he was to be taken to the Texas death chamber. The court said Campbell and his lawyers have not had a fair opportunity to develop the mental impairment claims.

The appeal, which Campbell's attorneys filed along with a petition to the Supreme Court, contended that Campbell is not mentally competent for execution because he has an IQ of 69. Courts generally set an IQ of 70 as the minimum threshold.

The judges said Tuesday in their opinion that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had failed to turn over to the results of Campbell’s intelligence test to his lawyer.

“Because of the unique circumstances of this case, Campbell and his attorneys have not had a fair opportunity to develop Campbell’s claim of ineligibility for the death penalty,” the opinion said. “In light of the evidence we have been shown, we believe that Campbell must be given such an opportunity.”

Campbell’s lawyers argued Monday in a plea to a federal appeals court that his “Eighth Amendment rights can only be protected if he is provided the information required to ensure a humane, nontorturous execution.” The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

Campbell's request for a stay was previously rejected by a federal judge, Keith P. Ellison, in an appeal last Friday — but that judge said his hands were tied by the decisions of other courts, and he urged a federal appeals court considering Monday's appeal to weigh the developments in Oklahoma.

In his decision, Ellison of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas said “the horrific narrative of Oklahoma’s botched execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29, 2014 requires sober reflection on the manner in which this nation administers the ultimate punishment.”

Questions about execution procedures have drawn renewed attention from defense attorneys and death penalty opponents in recent months as states have been forced to scramble to find new sources of execution drugs. Several drug makers, including many based in Europe, have refused to sell drugs for use in executions.

The issue surfaced in Texas — the U.S. state that has most frequently used the death penalty — when it replenished its execution drug stock in late March. But the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals that focused on secrecy surrounding the drug suppliers’ names, and three Texas inmates have been executed since then.

The secrecy surrounding the chemicals has escalated the national debate on capital punishment, but it appeared to be other parts of the procedure that led to problems in Lockett’s case.

Oklahoma officials tried for 51 minutes to find a vein for the needle administering the execution drugs, in Lockett's arms and feet. They eventually inserted the IV into a vein in his groin. That vein collapsed, and because the dislodged line was under a sheet the problem was not detected until 21 minutes after the execution began, according to a report from the state's prison chief.

Another vein was not usable, and the state did not have another dose of lethal drugs nearby, so the execution was stopped — but Lockett died about 10 minutes later. The autopsy report will take two to three months to complete.

Campbell is set to be executed for the 1991 slaying of a Houston woman, Alexandra Rendon, who was abducted while putting gas into her car and then robbed, raped and shot. Campbell was 18 at the time and on parole after serving four months of a five-year sentence for robbery.

His lawyers also have other appeals in the courts, arguing that legal help he received at his trial and in earlier stages of appeals was deficient.

Al Jazeera and the Associated Press

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