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Appeals Court Grants Texas Death Row Inmate A Stay Of Execution

Update: The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a motion to stop the execution of Robert James Campbell in Texas on Tuesday on the grounds of his intellectual disability.

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Updated — 5 p.m. ET

Only hours before the scheduled execution of Robert James Campbell in the Huntsville death chamber in Texas, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit granted a motion to stay his execution on the grounds that he is intellectually disabled and therefore constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty.

One of Campbell's attorneys, Robert C. Owen, said in a statement:

"Today the Fifth Circuit has ruled that Texas may not proceed with the scheduled execution of Robert Campbell, a man whose lifelong mental retardation was not proven until new evidence, long hidden by prosecutors and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, very recently came to light."

Owen added that Campbell had been evaluated by a highly qualified member of the Texas Board of Examiners of Psychologists who confirmed that he was "a person with mental retardation." According the the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision in the case of Atkins v. Virginia, this makes Campbell ineligible for the death penalty.

A spokesperson from the Texas Attorney General's office told BuzzFeed: "We are reviewing the court's order. No further comment."

Texas death row inmate Robert James Campbell was scheduled to be executed on Tuesday for the abduction, rape, and murder of a Houston bank teller in 1991.

Richard Carson / Reuters

It would have been the country's first execution since an Oklahoma inmate died of a heart attack after a botched lethal injection on April 29.


In Oklahoma, Clayton Lockett's vein collapsed during his lethal injection, prompting prison officials to halt the execution. Lockett (left) later died of a heart attack.

Lockett appeared to regain consciousness and writhe and moan in pain mid-execution after he was administered a new drug combination being tested for the first time in Oklahoma.

The state eventually agreed to delay the death of Charles Warner (right), who was scheduled for execution on the same night as Lockett, until Nov. 13, 2014.

The botched attempt stirred a nationwide debate about the drugs used to kill death row inmates and the risk of torturous outcomes caused by the state's lack of transparency surrounding executions.

AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

The case is the latest in a growing controversy nationwide over the use of lethal injection for executions. Companies making the drugs used in executions have stopped doing so, and states with the death penalty on the books have been scrambling to find other options.

Before their April 29 execution dates, Lockett and Warner had previously petitioned for a stay because of the Oklahoma had run out of pentobarbital, a necessary barbiturate used in the execution process. The state then needed to find another drug combination.

A bipartisan committee recently called the administration of capital punishment "deeply flawed" and noted a drug cocktail, such as the one used in Oklahoma, “poses a risk of avoidable inmate pain and suffering."

The committee's 200-page report published by the Constitution Project called for a number of reforms including "transparency in the development and administration of lethal injection protocols" and "the adoption of a one-drug protocol" for executions by lethal injection.

The attention is now on Texas where Robert James Campbell could become the first person to be executed since the Oklahoma debacle.

AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Campbell, 41, was convicted in 1991 for the abduction and fatal shooting of 20-year-old Alexandra Rendon in Houston.

At the age of 18, Campbell and his accomplice Leroy Lewis, kidnapped Bank One employee Rendon from a gas station, drove her to a desolate area, robbed her of her money and jewelry, and then raped her.

Campbell told Rendon to run after marching her to a field at gunpoint. He shot at her head and missed. He then fatally shot her in the back and left her to die.

Her body was found 12 days after the murder.

Campbell's lawyers have asked for a stay of execution, citing the recent events in Oklahoma. A motion filed in Houston's federal court stated, "There is a substantial risk that Mr. Campbell's execution could be as horrific as Mr. Lockett's."

However, U.S. District Court Judge Keith Ellison denied the stay motion on Campbell's execution even as he noted that the "horrific narrative of Oklahoma's botched execution of Clayton Lockett" required "sober reflection on the manner in which this nation administers the ultimate punishment."

Ellison said he could not stop Campbell's execution because of earlier rulings by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

Campbell's lawyers have now filed a stay motion and an appeal asking the Supreme Court to address the constitutionality of the secrecy surrounding Texas' lethal injection drugs.

After stay motions were rejected by the district court and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Campbell's attorneys filed a cert petition Tuesday afternoon asking the Supreme Court of the United States to hear the appeal.

In a press release, Cambell's attorney, Maurie Levin, said, "This is a crucial moment when the courts must recognize that death row prisoners can no longer rely on the State's bald assertion that the events in Oklahoma won't repeat themselves in Texas. Unless the courts demand that Texas proceed with a commitment to transparency and accountability, there is an unacceptable risk that other prisoners will be subjected to the torturous death suffered by Mr. Lockett."


In a Fifth Circuit appeal filed on Monday, which was later rejected, Campbell’s lawyers urged the court to halt the execution and reconsider its stance on the state’s secrecy surrounding the drugs in light of Lockett’s "horrifically botched execution."

AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied Robert James Campbell's motion to stay his execution, on Monday. Campbell's lawyers had filed an appeal to the court Monday morning to halt his execution on the grounds that the state did not disclose enough information about the source of the drugs to ensure a humane, non-torturous execution.

However, the court denied the motion saying, Campbell's "speculation" wasn't enough to prove his claims that the "unknowns" regarding the drugs to be used would cause him severe pain.

The appeal stated that Campbell’s Eighth Amendment rights would be violated if the state did not disclose vital information about the drugs to ensure a humane, non-torturous execution. A clause in the Eighth Amendment prohibits the federal and state governments from imposing "cruel and unusual punishments, including torture."

Texas says that it uses a single drug, the barbiturate pentobarbital, instead of the three-drug regimen Oklahoma used last month.

AP Photo/Keystone, Alessandro Della Bella

Texas refused to disclose the source of its new batch of pentobarbital, only revealing that it came from a "licensed compounding pharmacy within the United States."

The state has defended its secrecy in identifying the source of the drugs by claiming that threats were made against previous suppliers of lethal injection drugs. However, the Associated Press reported in April that there was little evidence from Texas prison officials to support their claim that such suppliers would be in danger of violence if their identities were made public.

Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, said that pentobarbital has been used successfully in 33 executions in Texas.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File

In a May 12 brief, Abbott said that Texas’ execution protocol was “vastly different” from Oklahoma’s where a new protocol was being used. Lawyers for the state noted that Texas has successfully used the same batch of drugs from the same supplier for three executions, the most recent one being that of Jose Villegas on April 16.

However, a journalist who witnessed Villegas' execution wrote that after he was administered the single dose of pentobarbital, Villegas said, "It does kind of burn. Good-bye," before gasping several times.

Recently, Gov. Rick Perry defended the state's record saying he was confident that the executions in Texas are taken care of in an appropriate way.

A second appeal to the 5th Circuit cites other concerns including the state's withholding of information about his low IQ score that would make him ineligible for capital punishment.

Handout / Reuters

Campbell's lawyers filed a petition to the Supreme Court even before the 5th Circuit's ruling on the issue. They also sent a letter to Gov. Perry Tuesday afternoon, asking him to issue a 30-day reprieve of execution to allow the Board of Pardons and Paroles to consider Campbell's application for commuting his death sentence to life without parole on the grounds that is intellectually disabled.

On Monday, The Arc, a nonprofit advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, also sent a letter to Perry urging him to commute Campbell's death sentence.

Campbell will be executed in the Huntsville death chamber as planned on Tuesday at 6 p.m. CT. He will be the eight person to be executed by Texas so far in 2014.

Handout / Reuters

The New York Times called Huntsville, Texas, "the capital of capital punishment."

Since 1982, all of the state's 515 executions by lethal injection have taken place at the same "death chamber" of the Huntsville Walls Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Tasneem Nashrulla is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Tasneem Nashrulla at

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