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. He had two separate appeals, one claiming mental impairment and another that 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.
"I am happy. The Lord prevailed," Campbell said from a cell just outside the death chamber in Huntsville before being returned to death row at a prison about 45 miles to the east.
The drug secrecy issue was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted his punishment about 2½ hours prior to his scheduled execution. Campbell was set to die for killing a Houston bank teller in 1991.
"Campbell and his attorneys have not had a fair opportunity to develop Campbell's claims of ineligibility for the death penalty," a three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based court said. "In light of the evidence we have been shown, we believe that Campbell must be given such an opportunity."
That appeal contended Campbell wasn't mentally competent for execution because he has a 69 IQ. Courts generally set a 70 IQ as the minimum threshold. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled mentally impaired people cannot be executed.
Campbell's attorney, Rob Owen, argued Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials failed to turn over three intelligence tests from Campbell's earlier imprisonment that bolstered his claims of mental impairment. The records had been requested 10 years ago by a previous attorney who was told they didn't exist and only recently surfaced, he said.
State attorneys contended defense lawyers never asked for the records until March.
The next Texas execution is scheduled for August. Missouri has an execution scheduled for May 21 that now would become the first one since the botched injection in Oklahoma.
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. Oklahoma has put executions on hold while an investigation is ongoing, but authorities there have suggested the trouble started with Lockett's vein rather than the drugs.
Campbell's attorneys were 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.
Texas' attorneys said Campbell's claims were 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 have been 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 Circuit late Monday rejected an appeal on the drug secrecy issue, saying mere speculation wasn't enough to prove the claim 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 Houston bank teller Alexandra Rendon, who was abducted while putting gas into her car, robbed, raped and shot. Rendon, 20, had been making wedding plans and was buried wearing her recently purchased wedding dress.