John Winfield, scheduled to be executed in Missouri next week, was granted a stay on Thursday by a federal judge, who cited concerns that a prison worker may have been intimidated into deciding not to write a letter on behalf of the death row inmate.
Winfield, 43, was scheduled to die at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday for killing two women in 1996. His execution would have been among the first scheduled since April 29 when a botched execution in Oklahoma raised new questions about the lethal injection protocol. Oklahoma officials are investigating what went wrong in the execution of Clayton Lockett, whose vein was said to have collapsed. Lockett died 43 minutes later of an apparent heart attack.
That death along with questions about an execution in Ohio have led to a national debate on the protocols used in lethal injections. In Missouri, the attorney general has suggested the state set up its own facilities for making the drugs to ensure quality and potency.
An inmate in Georgia is scheduled to be executed on Tuesday. Executions are scheduled for Wednesday in Pennsylvania and Florida.
Missouri officials haven't said whether they will appeal the stay, granted by U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry in St. Louis.
In court documents, Terry Cole, the laundry director at the Potosi Correctional Center where death row inmates are housed in Missouri, told Winfield's attorneys he supported a clemency request and was willing to write a letter.
Perry wrote that Cole was told by a prison administrator that there was no policy prohibiting such a letter. But on May 20, a Corrections Department investigator told Cole he was under investigation for alleged "over-familiarity" with Winfield. Cole eventually decided against writing the letter.
Cole denied being threatened, but the judge said evidence indicated he feared for his job.
"The evidence presented to me shows that Winfield is likely to be able to prove at a later trial that prison officials took actions to intimidate Cole to keep him from providing support for Winfield's clemency petition," the judge wrote.
"The court correctly found that the state actors intimidated a prison staff member and made him fear for his job, and that such obstruction of the clemency process violated Mr. Winfield's due process rights," said Winfield's attorney Joseph Luby in an emailed statement.
"This 20-year corrections staff member was made to fear for his job when he wanted to tell the truth about Mr. Winfield's remarkable rehabilitation and the positive good he will continue to do if his life is spared," Luby stated.