Judge stays Missouri execution over claims of mental illness

A federal judge temporarily halted the execution of convicted murderer John Middleton Tuesday over concerns that he could be mentally ill. The stay could be overturned Wednesday.

Missouri Department of Corrections/AP/File
In this 2007 file photo shows John Middleton, who is scheduled to be executed for a 1995 murder. The execution was temporarily stayed Tuesday.

A federal judge put the execution of a Missouri man temporarily on hold Tuesday after ruling that there was evidence that the defendant could be mentally ill. But state officials, who have appealed the stay, say that if the hold is lifted, the defendant could still be executed Wednesday.

This fluid situation is the result of a flurry of court decisions Tuesday, in which judges halted and reinstated the execution multiple times within a 24-hour period. At issue is whether or not the defendant, John Middleton, could be diagnosed as mentally ill. If so, his execution would be unconstitutional under a 2002 US Supreme Court ruling.

Mr. Middleton was convicted of killing three people in rural northern Missouri in 1995 to keep them silent about an illegal methamphetamine operation he was running.

He was sentenced to be executed at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, but US District Court Judge Catherine Perry granted a stay early Tuesday.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster then appealed to the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals, which quickly vacated the stay, siding with Mr. Koster, who alleged that Middleton was attempting to manipulate the court with false claims regarding his mental state.

Middleton’s lawyers turned to the US Supreme Court, which also sided with the state of Missouri. When that failed, they turned back to Judge Perry, who again granted a stay less than two hours before the scheduled execution.

Shortly before midnight, Koster turned back to the appeals court in a final attempt to vacate the ruling, but the court had adjourned for the evening.

This isn’t he first time this year that the execution of a defendant with alleged mental illness has been an issue. Two months ago, the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay of execution to death row inmate Robert Campbell after it was revealed that Texas prosecutors had withheld information that pertained to Mr. Campbell’s mental capacity.

In 2003, Campbell’s attorneys unsuccessfully appealed to the same court, noting that he had scored an 84 on an IQ test. In the weeks leading up to the successful appeal in May, however, attorneys discovered that Campbell had scored as low as 68 on other tests administered in the early 1990s. Campbell’s lawyers said prosecutors had concealed these tests.

Other recent death-penalty delays have been issued concerning the execution process. European manufacturers, whose countries object to capital punishment, have stopped selling barbiturate, a key drug used in executions, to state corrections facilities. So many states have turned to other chemical cocktails to execute inmates without disclosing their sources.

This has led to executions in which the condemned appeared to be in extreme pain. Among these incidents was the attempted execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in April, which was cancelled after Mr. Lockett began writhing. He died of a heart attack shortly after.

Both Oklahoma and Ohio current have temporary death-penalty moratoriums because of questions regarding their execution protocols. But Missouri has executed inmates without incident since April without disclosing where it got its drugs.

If Middleton is executed Wednesday, he will be the sixth man put to death in Missouri this year. Only Texas and Florida have performed more executions in 2014, with seven each.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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