Missouri execution halted by Supreme Court after plea from 15 judges

The U.S. Supreme Court late Tuesday halted the execution of a Missouri man who killed a woman and her two children, citing concerns that his legal counsel was ineffective.

Death row inmate Mark Christeson didn't receive federal court review

The death chamber is seen through the steel bars from the viewing room at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas in this 2010 handout. (Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Dept of Criminal Justice/HO-Reuters)

The U.S. Supreme Court late Tuesday halted the execution of a Missouri man who killed a woman and her two children, citing concerns that his legal counsel was ineffective.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented on the stay of execution.

The development came after 15 former judges filed an amicus brief Friday with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals claiming Mark Christeson was denied federal court review because his court-appointed attorneys missed a deadline by four months in 2005.

The 8th Circuit refused the stay request and rejected Christeson’s appeals. Christeson’s attorneys appealed Monday with the U.S. Supreme Court, with the Washington-based organization The Constitution Project working with the former judges.

Mark Christeson is shown in this April 21, 2014 photo provided by the Missouri Department of Corrections. (Missouri Department of Corrections/The Associated Press)

Christeson, 35, was scheduled to die by injection at 12:01 a.m. at the state prison in Bonne Terre before the late stay of execution was issued. Missouri Department of Corrections spokesman Mike O'Connell said it wasn't clear what will happen next for Christeson.

"This is something that will be taken up in court," O'Connell said.

Jennifer Merrigan, one of Christeson's attorneys, declined comment.

The appeal to the Supreme Court raised several concerns about legal counsel Christeson has received over the years, including the failure of some of his attorneys to meet a 2005 deadline to file for an appeal hearing before a federal court. It is uncommon for someone to be executed without a federal court appeal hearing.

The high court denied a second appeal challenging the state's planned use of a made-to-order execution drug produced by an unidentified compounding pharmacy. Midazolam, the drug in question, has come under scrutiny after it was used in problematic executions earlier this year in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona. In each case, witnesses said the inmates gasped after their executions began and continued to labor for air before being pronounced dead.

Christeson would have been the ninth man executed in Missouri this year, matching an all-time high for the state set in 1999.

In Maries County, the rural south-central Missouri county where the crime occurred, there is little argument with the death sentence, prosecutor Terry Daley Schwartze said.

"No matter how anybody feels about the death penalty, you can't find a person around here who doesn't feel it's the right result for this case," Schwartze said. "It's so very awful."

Christeson, 18 at the time, was convicted in the rape and killing in 1998 of Susan Brouk, and the killings of Brouk's 12-year-old daughter, Adrian, and 9-year-old son Kyle. All three were driven to a pond and drowned.

Jesse Carter, 17 at the time of the murders, was sentenced to life in prison after agreeing to testify against Christeson, his cousin.

Christeson and Carter later drove to California, selling Brouk's household items along the way. A detective in Riverside County, Calif., recognized Christeson and Carter from photos police had circulated, and the men were arrested eight days after the killings.

Texas inmate executed by lethal injection

Meanwhile, a former gang member was put to death in Texas on Tuesday evening for the fatal shootings of three rivals 14 years ago in San Antonio.

Miguel Paredes, 32, was convicted along with two other men in the September 2000 slayings of three people with ties to the Mexican Mafia. The victims' bodies were rolled up in a carpet, driven about 80 kilometres southwest, dumped and set on fire. A farmer investigating a grass fire found the remains.

Paredes was pronounced dead at 6:54 p.m. CDT, 22 minutes after being injected with a lethal dose of the sedative pentobarbital. The execution was delayed slightly to ensure the IV lines were functioning properly, said Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark. The procedure calls for two working lines.

Normally needles are placed in the crease of an inmate's arms near the elbows, but in Paredes' case, prison officials inserted IV lines into his hands.

His was the 10th to be executed by lethal injection this year in Texas, the most active death-penalty state in the U.S. One other Texas inmate is set to die in December and at least nine are scheduled for execution in early 2015, including four in January.

Prosecutors said Paredes was the most aggressive shooter when Nelly Bravo and Shawn Michael Cain, both 23, and Adrian Torres, 27, showed up to collect drug money at the home of John Anthony Saenz, a leader in Paredes's gang.

Paperwork carrying Saenz's name was found in the debris with the victims' bodies, which helped police solve the case. Saenz, 32, claimed self-defence at his trial and avoided the death penalty when jurors sentenced him to life. The third man convicted in the killings, Greg Alvarado, 35, pleaded guilty and also is serving life in prison.

With files from Reuters