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National and world

May 13, 2014

Court halts execution over mental health claims

HUNTSVILLE, Texas — A federal appeals court halted a convicted Texas killer’s scheduled execution Tuesday so his attorneys can pursue appeals arguing he’s 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 Texas death chamber in Huntsville.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted his punishment about 2 1/2 hours before he could have been taken to the death chamber, saying Campbell and his lawyers haven’t had a fair opportunity to develop the mental impairment claims.

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, who went to the U.S. Supreme Court with last-day appeals, filed a petition to the high court even before the 5th Circuit ruled on the mental impairment issue.

Campbell was set to die for killing a 20-year-old Houston bank teller. His 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.

“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.

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.

Campbell was convicted of capital murder for the 1991 slaying of Alexandra Rendon, 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.

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