[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website] on Tuesday granted [decision, PDF] a stay of execution for a Texas inmate just hours before he was to be put to death in order to review his claim that he is intellectually disabled. Robert James Campbell, a 41-year-old convicted rapist and murderer, was to be the first inmate executed in the US since a failed execution in Oklahoma last month brought a great deal of negative attention to lethal injections. Although the court refused to intervene based on Campbell’s first argument that the state was withholding crucial evidence on the drug to be used during the execution, the court issued the stay based on Campbell’s second argument as to what the law means in determining mental retardation. Campbell’s attorneys also argued that the state withheld two of his test scores, one of 68 achieved when he was a child and one of 71 achieved right after he arrived on death row at the age of 19. These scores would put Campbell on the border of being considered mentally retarded for execution purposes [backgrounder], and the court agreed that this was enough reason to grant the stay. Judge James Dennis wrote in the decision “We have been presented evidence that Campbell, who will soon be executed unless we intervene, may not constitutionally be executed.”
Execution of the mentally ill has gained much attention recently. In March the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in the case Hall v. Florida on the legal standard for assessing whether an individual is mentally retarded for execution purposes. The court will decide whether Florida’s statutory scheme for identifying mentally retarded individuals in capital cases violates the standards set forth in Atkins v. Virginia [opinion, PDF] (2002). In Atkins, the court decided that it was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment to execute mentally retarded individuals, overruling its earlier decision in Penry v. Lynaugh [opinion] (1989). In terms of determining what constitutes mental retardation, the court in Atkins left this up to the individual states to decide. Florida currently employs a bright-line cut-off scheme in which anyone who scores below 70 on an IQ test is considered mentally retarded and thus exempt from execution. Texas does not employ such a statute, and has executed mentally retarded offenders, even after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins.