Hours before Texas could carry out the nation's first execution since Oklahoma botched a lethal injection last month, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the execution on grounds that the inmate's lawyers didn't have a chance to use evidence that he was intellectually disabled.
Multiple IQ tests that Robert Campbell, 41, took at various ages demonstrated "significantly sub-average intellectual functioning," the court ruled. The appellate judges also noted evidence that Campbell failed classes in school and struggled with everyday tasks such as making change, reading a gas gauge and telling time.
They found that prosecutors and, later, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had concealed from Campbell's attorneys his IQ test results below 70, which is generally considered intellectually disabled by the courts. Those results would have bolstered the argument that he was not legally competent to be executed.
"It is regrettable that we are now reviewing evidence of intellectual disability at the eleventh hour," the court wrote, but it noted, "We cannot fault Campbell or his attorneys, past or present, for the delay."
"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," they wrote.
Prison officials said when they told Campbell of the stay, he smiled and said, "I'm happy. The Lord prevailed."
One of his attorneys, Robert Owen, said the stay "creates an opportunity for Texas to rise above its past mistakes and seek a resolution of this matter that will better serve the interests of all parties and the public."
He urged the state to commute Campbell's sentence to life in prison and "choose the path of resolution rather than pursuing months or years of further proceedings."
Campbell was convicted of murder for the 1991 killing of Alexandra Rendon, 20, a Houston bank teller who was robbed, raped and shot.
Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott's office has challenged allegations that Campbell legally qualifies as "mentally retarded," noting in court filings that he scored 84 on an IQ test administered when he was first imprisoned — well above the cutoff — and later scored 71.
Prosecutors argued there were other signs Campbell is smarter than his attorneys contend. He may not be able to make change, but he can count. He may not be able to read a gas gauge, but he can drive a stick-shift car. He did poorly in school, but he also played sports and sang in a church choir, baby-sat and worked mowing yards, they wrote.
And when it came to the crime for which he was convicted, they argued, Campbell took the initiative, stealing the victim's car and shooting her.
"Campbell offers nothing to show that his lackluster adaptive skills arose from low intelligence rather than from a preference for crime," they wrote.
An Abbott spokeswoman said they were reviewing the court's order late Tuesday.
Rendon's relatives had traveled to Huntsville, about an hour's drive north of Houston, for the execution. When they heard about the stay, Rendon's mother and aunt cried quietly, trying to restrain themselves, according to Rendon's cousin, Israel Santana.
Santana, who had planned to witness the execution, described himself as "drained, emotionally and physically."
"A lot of people have lost perspective. They're always worried about cruel and unusual punishment and forgetting about what got us here — raping and killing a beautiful young woman," said Santana, a Houston lawyer.
Rendon was engaged at the time of her murder, he said, and was buried in her wedding dress.
Santana says he still wants Campbell executed, and is optimistic the courts will eventually agree.
"We hope they see through this veil his attorneys have put forward," Santana said.
Campbell's execution would have been the eighth this year in Texas, which puts more inmates to death than any other state — 515 since lethal injections began in 1982. Texas has executed more inmates than the next half-dozen busiest death penalty states combined (Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri, Alabama and Georgia). The next execution in Texas is not scheduled until August.