Court Blocks Texas Execution Of Intellectually Disabled Man

CREDIT: AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Robert James Campbell

CREDIT: AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Just hours before Texas was set to execute a man who challenged the death sentence both because the drug’s source was secret, and because he was intellectually disabled, a federal appeals court agreed to temporarily stop the execution of Robert James Campbell. The execution date came just two weeks after Oklahoma generated national outrage over its botched execution. And Texas planned to go forward with the execution also using a drug from a compounding pharmacy whose source was not disclosed.

But the reason the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stopped the execution is because of new evidence that Campbell is intellectually disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court bans the death penalty for defendants deemed “mentally retarded.” Campbell’s lawyers have tried to argue his intellectual disability in the past. But there is evidence that the state withheld information about intelligence tests performed by the state corroborating claims of mental disability.

The court held that intelligence test results presented evidence “more than sufficient” to “warrant a further exploration by the district court” of Campbell’s claim. In its 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, the high court held that executing individuals deemed “mentally retarded” violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because their disability “places them at special risk of wrongful execution.”

Campbell won the stay in part because he asserts that the state withheld evidence about his IQ and relied upon false representations of his actual IQ score. Whether Campbell’s claim is time-barred because his lawyers could have filed it earlier remains an open question, but the court did suggest that “it appears that we cannot fault Campbell or his attorneys, present or past, for the delay.”

“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,” the three-judge panel concludes.

Campbell still faces an uphill battle. A loophole in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision barring execution of the intellectually disabled has allowed states to to set their own onerous standards for establishing intellectual disability. And using the high bar set by Texas, a state court ruling on this issue held that Campbell had not proved intellectual disability. The ruling came over the strong dissent of four justices, who called Campbell’s evidence of intellectual disability “compelling.” Campbell will now have to make his case before a federal trial judge that he can prove intellectual disability.