HOUSTON — A federal judge in Houston on Monday stayed the execution of a Texas man and granted him a competency hearing days before he was to be put to death for the abduction, rape and strangulation of a 12-year-old girl.
Soon after the ruling, the Texas Attorney General’s Office filed a notice of appeal with the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A spokesman for the attorney general declined to comment.
Christina Neal was snatched as she walked home on June 21, 2000, in Montgomery County, about 60 miles north of Houston, according to the attorney general’s summary of the case. Investigators became suspicious of a neighbor, Jonathan Green, after they learned he had been burning trash soon after the girl’s disappearance. They obtained a warrant and searched his property, discovering a shallow grave. Inside the house, tucked behind a chair, they found Christina’s body stuffed inside a bag.
Green was convicted of murder in July 2002, and was scheduled for execution on June 30, 2010. His attorneys challenged the death sentence, arguing that Green was mentally ill and did not receive due process on an appeal.
The Supreme Court has held that mental illness doesn’t automatically disqualify someone from execution, as long as the person understands the punishment and why it’s being meted out.
Hours before Green was scheduled to die two years ago, an appeals court judge stayed the execution to evaluate his mental condition. Judges later found him competent, and Green, 44, was scheduled for execution Wednesday.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas ruled in favor of an appeal from Green’s attorneys, but noted she was concerned only with the question of “whether Green is entitled to a stay of execution and not with the ultimate question of whether he is incompetent to be executed.”
Atlas added: “It is clear from the record that, at a minimum, the trial court prevented Green from presenting testimony by treating mental health professionals, relied on an order solicited from and drafted by the state to which Green had no opportunity to object, and applied at least one incorrect legal standard.”
The judge noted that Green’s competency was still an open question that required a hearing — not because he failed to establish that he was incompetent, but because “he was prevented from doing so” through a lack of due process.
Green’s Houston-based lawyer, James Rytting, praised the ruling as “a thorough decision.”
“I don’t think they will be able to get it overturned,” Rytting said of prosecutors.
A state expert has testified that Green is exaggerating his mental illness, but Rytting told the Los Angeles Times on Monday that the expert spent little time with Green and failed to test him.
“Mr. Green is seriously mentally ill; he suffers from schizophrenia and constant hallucinations,” Rytting said. Green’s condition has worsened, he said, since he has been imprisoned without treatment.
In his most recent appeal, Rytting cited prison records that Green had “stuffed so much tissue in his ear canals that irrigation was necessary to remove the impacted toilet paper.”
“This isn’t just somebody making things up,” the lawyer said. “You can’t discount delusions. You can’t discount hallucinations. It makes it ridiculous to execute someone — it’s not retribution, it’s not a deterrent.”