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Appeals court stays Texas execution over claim of mental disability

 | 
Austin, Texas

An execution scheduled for May 13 in Huntsville was stayed by a federal appeals court in New Orleans two hours before Robert James Campbell was set to be put to death.

The court said prosecutors in Campbell's case did not take into account evidence that he had an intellectual disability.

The U.S. Supreme Court has banned the execution of anyone with such a disability and has pegged an IQ of 70 or below as evidence of it. Campbell's first IQ test as a child showed his IQ to be 68. When he first arrived on death row, it was 71. A test conducted in April at the request of his lawyers put Campbell's IQ at 69.

Campbell's attorneys contended Texas had concealed evidence of Campbell's low IQ scores during his trial.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in its ruling, said: "It is regrettable that we are now reviewing evidence of intellectual disability at the eleventh hour before Campbell's scheduled execution. However, from the record before us, it appears that we cannot fault Campbell or his attorneys, present or past, for the delay."

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Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty, said the coalition will organizing a walk in Texas in October to bring attention to the application of capital punishment in Texas, which uses the death penalty more than any other state.

The Austin-based Texas Catholic Conference, public policy arm for the state's bishops, had written in February to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, asking him to grant a stay of execution.

"Mr. Campbell's execution wrongly suggests that society can overcome violence with violence. At a time when the sanctity of life is threatened in many ways, punishment by death is not a solution but instead effectively undermines our society's respect for life," said a Feb. 20 letter to Perry from Jeffery R. Patterson, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference.

"Our society has the means of effectively rendering criminals harmless in order to provide them with an opportunity for reform, yet the death penalty denies them this opportunity," Patterson said. "The Catholic Church opposes the use of the death penalty as a means of punishment or a deterrent to crime because there are alternative means to protect society available."

Campbell, now 41, was convicted of the 1991 abduction, rape and murder of Alexandra Rendon. A state court had in early May rejected a stay of execution based on his lawyers' disability claim.

According to Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Campbell "was talking with the chaplains who were there at the front of the cell" when he got word of the stay. "He was smiling. He says, 'I'm happy. The Lord prevailed.'"

On May 19, the Delaware Supreme Court unanimously ordered a new trial in the case of a death-row inmate who, like Campbell, had spent more than half of his life on death row and also lacked comprehension skills. A state judge had overturned the conviction and vacated his death sentence in 2012.

Jermaine Wright, now 41, was convicted of the 1991 murder near Wilmington, Del., of a liquor store employee. Wright, according to a May 19 statement from the Death Penalty Information Center, had "limited verbal comprehension skills, (was) severely sleep deprived, high on heroin and actively consuming heroin during the (10-hour) interview process, and chained to a desk in a windowless, harshly lit 6x10-foot interrogation room. As the (state) Superior Court found, Mr. Wright exhibited bizarre and paranoid behavior throughout his interrogation, including speaking almost inaudibly, insisting on writing down his answers on small scraps of paper and then eating them, and curling up in fetal position underneath the interrogation table."

Wright's confession given in that interrogation did not square with the facts of the case. A jailhouse informant who said Wright admitted to the slaying while in jail later recanted his testimony.

The court held that the state, in prosecuting Wright, had suppressed evidence of another liquor-store robbery earlier that night. The men who committed that robbery resembled those in the robbery in which Wright was convicted, but that information never reached the jury.

"As the court recognized, the only evidence against Mr. Wright was a false confession, a confession that was 'inaccurate,' and squarely contradicted by the facts of the case," said one of Wright's attorneys, Herbert Mondros, in a May 19 statement. "The court further noted that 'implicit in this search for truth is the need to protect the innocent.' It would be unconscionable for the state to continue to pursue charges against this wrongfully convicted, innocent man."

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