A federal appeals court halted the planned execution in Texas of Robert James Campbell just hours before he was to be put to death Tuesday based on questions about whether the 41-year-old inmate is mentally disabled.
“We have been presented with evidence that Campbell, who will soon be executed unless we intervene, may not constitutionally be executed,” the ruling from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans stated.
Campbell, convicted in the 1991 capital murder of 20-year-old Houston bank teller, Alexandra Rendon, was notified of the stay by his attorney, Robert Owen, at about 3 p.m., just three hours before his scheduled execution at the Walls Unit in Huntsville.
“I’m happy,” he told Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “The Lord prevailed.”
Campbell’s execution would have been the first since last month’s botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.
A failed intravenous line contributed to a series of missteps in Lockett's execution. Officials in that state, who were using a new lethal cocktail, had trouble finding a vein in which to place the injection needle. Lockett died 43 minutes later, not of the drugs but of a heart attack. That state is delaying future executions until an investigation into the execution is completed.
Unlike Oklahoma, Texas uses one drug to execute death row inmates, pentobarbital.
Campbell’s lawyers have been challenging their client’s execution on two fronts. One appeal, which was based on alleged secrecy by the TDCJ surrounding the execution drugs to be used and questioned whether that violated the defendant’s right not to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment, is before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The appeal on a second issue, questions of Campbell's mental competency, resulted in the stay.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that states could not execute the mentally disabled because it violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But it allowed states to develop their own criteria for mental disabilities.
In 2004, in the case of Jose Garcia Briseño, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, outlined its standards. The court’s three-part definition requires the convicted inmate to have below-average intellectual function, to lack adaptive behavior skills and to have had those problems prior to age 18.
In Campbell's appeal, a team of lawyers led by Owen, claim that one of Campbell’s trial attorneys did not get proper access to IQ tests performed both by the Houston Independent School District and the TDCJ.
The tests, they argue, could have helped bolster an earlier appeal contending that Campbell was not mentally competent for execution.
When Campbell was nine years old, HISD administered an IQ test on which he scored 68. When he was arrested at age 17 — before the murder — and tried as an adult for armed robbery, TDCJ administered an IQ test, and Campbell scored 84.
When he returned to TDCJ in 1992 after Rendon’s murder, Campbell was tested again and scored 71.
Last month, Campbell was tested by a psychologist and scored 69.
“If Mr. Campbell had had access to the 68 and the 71 when he was trying to get this issue to the courts in 2003, it would have been enough to give him an opportunity to prove he is a person with mental challenges,” Owen said.
The federal appeals court agreed.
“Because of the unique circumstances of this case, Campbell and his attorneys have not had a fair opportunity to develop Campbell’s claim of ineligibility for the death penalty. In light of the evidence we have been shown, we believe that Campbell must be given such an opportunity,” the judges ruled.
Owen uncovered the scores last March. He recovered the HISD IQ test score by going to the Harris County district attorney’s office, which had subpoenaed the school district and retrieved that earlier, elementary school IQ score.
Owen said his client was very emotional when he was notified about the stay.
“He was overwhelmed,” Owen said. “He was happy, he was crying, he was just taken aback by the whole thing.”