A federal appeals court halted the scheduled execution of a convicted killer in Texas on Tuesday so his attorneys can pursue appeals he is mentally impaired and ineligible for the death penalty.
Robert James Campbell, 41, would have been the first U.S. inmate executed since a botched execution in Oklahoma two weeks ago. His two 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 Oklahoma, and claims of mental impairment.
"I am happy. The Lord prevailed," Campbell said from a cell just outside the death chamber in Huntsville.
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The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted his punishment and granted a stay of execution about 2 1/2 hours before he could have been taken to the Texas death chamber, saying Campbell and his lawyers haven't had a fair opportunity to develop the mental impairment claims.
"Today the Fifth Circuit has ruled that Texas may not proceed with the scheduled execution of Robert Campbell, a man whose lifelong mental retardation was not proved until new evidence, long hidden by prosecutors and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, very recently came to light," said Campbell's attorney, Robert C. Owen, in a prepared statement Tuesday.
The appeal before the 5th Circuit contended Campbell isn't mentally competent for execution because he has a 69 IQ. Courts generally set a 70 IQ as the minimum threshold. Campbell's attorneys filed a petition to the Supreme Court even before the 5th Circuit ruled on that issue.
Campbell was set to die for killing 20-year-old Houston bank teller Alexandra Rendon in 1991, who was abducted while putting gas into her car, robbed, raped and shot.
"This was not a shoot and rob and run away," Rendon's cousin, Israel Santana, said. "The agony she had to go through."
Rendon, who had been making wedding plans, was buried wearing her recently purchased wedding dress.
"The Fifth Circuit's decision today creates an opportunity for Texas to rise above its past mistakes and seek a resolution of this matter that will better serve the interests of all parties and the public. Mr. Campbell has been fully evaluated by a highly qualified psychologist — a member of the Texas Board of Examiners of Psychologists, appointed to that post by Governor Rick Perry — who confirms he is a person with mental retardation. Therefore, according to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, he is ineligible for the death penalty. Given the state's own role in creating the regrettable circumstances that led to the Fifth Circuit's decision today, the time is right for the State of Texas to let go of its efforts to execute Mr. Campbell, and resolve this case by reducing his sentence to life imprisonment. State officials should choose the path of resolution rather than pursuing months or years of further proceedings."
Campbell's lawyers also made an issue of the drug to be used in the execution and the source not being identified. Like Oklahoma, Texas won't say where it gets its execution drugs, saying it needs to protect the producer's identity to prevent threats by death penalty opponents.
Unlike Oklahoma, which used a three-drug combination in the April 29 botched execution of Clayton Lockett, Texas uses a single dose of the sedative pentobarbital to kill inmates.
During Lockett's lethal injection, the inmate's vein collapsed, prompting Oklahoma prison officials to halt the procedure. Lockett later died of a heart attack. The investigation is ongoing, but Oklahoma authorities have suggested the trouble started with Lockett's vein rather than the drugs.
Campbell's attorneys, however, are among several arguing the incident demands greater execution drug transparency.
Lockett writhed and grimaced after the lethal injection was administered, and corrections officials did not realize not all the drug had entered his body for 21 minutes. Campbell's attorneys say Lockett's failed execution proves what many inmates have argued since states turned to made-to-order drugs: that the drugs put the inmates at risk of being subjected to inhumane pain and suffering.
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"This is a crucial moment when Texas must recognize that death row prisoners can no longer presume safety unless full disclosure is compelled so that the courts can fully review the lethal injection drugs to be used and ensure that they are safe and legal," said attorney Maurie Levin.
Texas' attorneys say Campbell's claims are speculative and fall "far short" of demonstrating a significant risk of severe pain.
"The Constitution does not require the elimination of all risk of pain," argued Ellen Stewart-Klein, an assistant Texas attorney general.
Campbell's execution would be the eighth this year for Texas, which kills more inmates than any other state, and the fourth in recent weeks to use the compounded pentobarbital. Texas invoked confidentiality in late March when it obtained a new supply of pentobarbital to replace a stock that had reached its expiration date.
Campbell's attorneys went to the U.S. Supreme Court with last-day appeals.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late Monday rejected an appeal on the drug secrecy issue, saying mere speculation wasn't enough to prove claims Campbell could be subjected to unconstitutionally cruel pain if executed with drugs from Texas' unidentified provider.