Just hours before it was scheduled to begin, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed Missouri inmate Mark Christeson's execution. He was set to be put to death for killing a southern Missouri woman and her two children in 1998.
The Supreme Court granted a temporary stay over concerns that Christeson's case had no federal review. Justices will consider whether there should be oral arguments in the case.
If the high court were to remove its stay, the Missouri Supreme Court would have to set a new execution date. December would be the earliest date that it could be set.
Late last week, 15 former state and federal judges asked courts to force the state to hold off on the execution, arguing that Christeson's court-appointed lawyers had abandoned him.
His attorneys missed an important deadline back in April 2005 by 117 days. In fact, they didn't even meet with him until about a month after the deadline had passed. By failing to file a petition, Christeson's case underwent no federal review.
"To permit an execution without further review would cast a pall over the process," wrote the former judges.
Saint Louis University Dean Michael Wolff, who served on the Missouri Supreme Court, is one of the judges who signed on.
"These judges understand the ramifications of missing that deadline," Sarah Turberville, senior counsel for the Constitution Project, which organized the brief. She says Christeson is the only inmate on death row who hasn't had his case reviewed by the federal courts.
"Federal review is an opportunity for error correction in a situation where it's irreversible, really," she said.
The state argues that "further litigation would be futile" and that the requests were not "timely."
Late Tuesday evening, the Supreme Court stayed the execution. Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas voted against granting the stay.
On a separate front, the Arc, an organization that advocates for those with mental disabilities, is asking Gov. Jay Nixon to grant Christeson clemency.
"Mr. Christeson shows signs of cognitive impairments, including deficits in written and verbal communication, and severe impairments in working memory, decision making, and concentration," the Arc wrote in a letter to Nixon. "He was placed in special education classes throughout his time in school. Childhood IQ tests place him in the mid-80s and his performance later dropped further to the first percentile, possibly as a result of multiple traumatic brain injuries."
In a separate challenge, Christeson takes issue with the compounded drugs that will be injected into him. As we've previously reported, Missouri is using a secret compounding pharmacy to mix the drug. Christeson's attorneys also criticized Missouri's use of the controversial sedative, midazolam, which St. Louis Public Radio revealed in an investigation last month.
The appeals court denied the stay, although three federal judges disagreed with that decision.
"Any sedative used prior to the execution of the death warrant should not be administered in such doses it could be deadly to an inmate and should not be administered as to render an inmate incompetent before a death warrant is active," the judges wrote.
"Particularly in light of Missouri's storied history of ignoring death row inmates' constitutional rights to federal review of their executions, I would stay Christeson's execution in order that he be allowed to access information and testing so he could determine whether or not his constitutional rights will be violated at the time of his death," wrote Judge Kermit Bye.
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