Supreme Court grants stay of execution

H By Lianne Hart and Henry Weinstein

hUNTSVILLE, Texas – In a surprise move, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a last-minute reprieve Wednesday night to a paranoid schizophrenic murderer, whose case drew widespread attention because it raised questions about executing the mentally ill.

The stay was issued after an eleventh-hour appeal filed by James Colburn’s lawyers. The 42-year-old was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection at the state prison here.

“It was a relief, a blessing from God,” Colburn told officials before he was led to the van that would take him back to death row. “I’m relieved for my family.”

The stay shocked people gathered here for the execution, coming only a day after the Supreme Court, in a 7-2 vote, refused to review Colburn’s case.

Jim Marcus, director of the Texas Defender Service, said that Wednesday’s appeal asserted that Colburn had been denied due process of law when a Texas state court ruled that he was competent to be executed.

A 1986 Supreme Court decision barred the execution of convicted murderers who have become so mentally ill that they do not know they are about to be killed and why. The decision also established that if there is a question about the inmate’s competency to be executed, he has to be afforded a hearing and the opportunity to present evidence on the issue. “All that was denied to Mr. Colburn,” Marcus said.

The stay gives Colburn’s lawyers 90 days to file a detailed brief explaining why the Supreme Court should give Colburn a full hearing on the competency issue.

A spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general’s officer said that she was not aware of the Supreme Court action and could not comment.

Colburn’s death sentence drew protests from human rights advocates that he lacked the capacity to understand his crime.

There is no doubt that Colburn, a former bricklayer and carpenter, killed 55-year-old Peggy Louis Murphy in 1994. Murphy, a waitress, was hitchhiking on a road north of Houston when Colburn invited her to his apartment for a drink. By his own admission, Colburn gave Murphy a beer, then tried to rape her. As they struggled, he choked Murphy and stabbed her in the throat with a steak knife.

Although he was institutionalized at least twice after being diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 14, two psychologists judged Colburn competent to stand trial in 1995.

Assistant District Attorney Jay Hileman told the jury that Colburn, who turned himself in after the murder, could distinguish between right and wrong and should be held accountable for his actions. “Attributing this violence, this horrible cruelty to paranoid schizophrenia is naive and over-simplistic,” Hileman said during the trial in Montgomery County, north of Houston. “He did it because he’s mean.”

It took 20 minutes for the jury to convict Colburn of capital murder, and two hours to sentence him to death.

Colburn’s lawyers appealed on the grounds that he could not help in his defense because anti-psychotic drugs made him so drowsy that he napped during the trial, at times snoring loudly. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the claim, ruling earlier this year that “whether Colburn fell asleep once or slept through most of his trial is not dispositive of Colburn’s competence.”

The Supreme Court on Tuesday had declined to review the case based on that issue.

Last June, the Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally retarded inmates. But the ruling did not address the issue of whether mental illness was a bar to execution.

The high court’s June ruling should naturally be extended to situations such as Colburn’s, said Philip H. Hilder, one of his appellate lawyers. “In blunt terms, he is out of his mind from a condition not of his doing. We’re not asking that he be excused for a murder. We’re asking that he be treated.”