Appellate court halts execution in Texas pending further review

The opportunity to file a criminal appeal is a vital function in our system of justice. Appealing a conviction, or challenging a sentence on appeal, provides the entire system an opportunity to correct any potential error in the lower court. While an individual seeking an appeal may be able to correct an injustice in the process related to him or herself, criminal appeals may also serve others as decisions in the appellate courts help to define the law for everyone.

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled that in cases involving an intellectually disabled person, the death penalty is unconstitutional under the Eight Amendment as the punishment is excessive. Before that ruling was handed down, a man was convicted in Texas and sentenced to death. He filed a few habeas corpus petitions after his 1992 conviction, but the claims were not successful. When the high court issued its 2002 ruling, his lawyer began researching whether the Texas death row inmate suffered from intellectual disability.

In 2003, in response to a defense request, the Texas Department of Corrections said that death row inmates do not receive intellectual testing, but the man had previously been tested. The state claimed that testing in 1992 yielded an IQ reading of 84, which would not qualify as intellectually disabled. No information about the testing had been saved.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit says that the state had not disclosed to the defense that the man scored 71 in a test in 1992. The court also says that, in 2003, the state did not disclose another test showing an IQ of 68.

Earlier this year, the death row inmate was tested again and the results indicate that his IQ is 69. The man was scheduled for execution on Tuesday. A federal appeals court halted the execution to allow the man to pursue a challenge to his death sentence on constitutional grounds. There were many issues in the appellate decision, but the main idea is that the court says the man (through his lawyers) should have a fair opportunity to present his constitutional challenge to the death sentence.

Source: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, “In re: Robert James Campbell,” May 13, 2014