published Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Court: Death row inmate can't be forcibly drugged to fit for execution

HOUSTON — A convicted killer with a history of mental illness cannot be forcibly medicated for the purpose of making him competent for execution, a Texas appeals court ruled Wednesday.

A state judge lacked the authority to order the involuntary medication of 51-year-old death row inmate Steven Staley, who was convicted for the 1989 shooting death of a Fort Worth restaurant manager during a botched robbery, according to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Prosecutors have argued Staley is competent for execution, but his attorneys have countered this was accomplished only because state District Judge Wayne Salvant in Fort Worth improperly ordered Staley be given drugs to make him competent so the state of Texas could kill him.

"We conclude that, but for his involuntary medication achieved through the trial court's unauthorized order, (Staley) is incompetent to be executed," the appeals court wrote in its 31-page opinion.

Staley's attorney, John Stickels, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

"We're disappointed. We're still reviewing (the ruling) and considering our options," said Jim Gibson, a prosecutor with the appellate division of the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office.

Gibson said the ruling doesn't affect Staley's conviction or death sentence but sends the case back to Salvant, who will periodically review Staley to see if he has regained competency.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled forcible medication is appropriate if it's likely to make the condemned inmate competent, if the side effects wouldn't be worse than the benefits and if it's in the prisoner's best medical interests. The Supreme Court hasn't addressed the issue.

Stickels has argued that Staley's IQ of 70 -- considered the threshold for mental impairment -- also could disqualify him from the punishment. The Supreme Court in 2002 barred execution of mentally impaired people.

The Texas appeals court said it was not making any rulings on Staley's claims that the judge's involuntary medication order violates state and federal constitutions or his claim that he is mentally impaired.

In May 2012, the appeals court halted Staley's execution two days before he was set to receive a lethal injection.

Staley was convicted for the October 1989 shooting death of 35-year-old Bob Read during a robbery of a Fort Worth restaurant. Staley and two accomplices were arrested after a wild 20-mile car and foot chase ended a series of robberies, assaults and at least one other killing as the trio traveled from Colorado, through Kansas, Oklahoma and into Texas.

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