The Supreme Court yesterday temporarily blocked the execution of a convicted Texas murderer, 11 hours before he was to receive a lethal injection. At the same time, the court said it would consider on an emergency basis how the courts should handle all such last-minute death penalty appeals.
The unexpected action, which could delay all executions scheduled for the next few months, comes amid charges from opponents of capital punishment that state officials and appeals court judges have begun rushing executions without giving defendants a full chance to present their pleas. More than 1,100 people nationwide are on death row.
Thomas Andy Barefoot, 37, had been moved to a holding room near the Texas death chamber when the justices acted yesterday. He was threatening to refuse to walk to his midnight execution as a protest against capital punishment.
Barefoot was convicted in the August, 1978, shooting death of police officer Carl Levin, the father of five, who had been questioning him in connection with a nightclub fire in Harker Heights, Tex. Prosecutors said Barefoot was a fugitive and shot Levin to avoid arrest.
Barefoot unsuccessfully sought a stay of execution and a full appeal at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans. When that was denied without full arguments and briefs on the grounds that his plea lacked legal merit, his lawyers went to the Supreme Court.
"This is no way to handle death cases," they told the justices. ". . . It delivers neither justice nor the appearance of justice. It harries judges unnecessarily and treats litigants unfairly."
The same appeals court took nearly identical action when it allowed last month's execution by Texas of Charlie Brooks. The Supreme Court did not intervene in that case, and capital punishment opponents charged both courts with dangerously speeding up the appeals process in death penalty cases in a way that could encourage a "bloodbath."
Yesterday, the Supreme Court said it would review "the appropriate standard for granting or denying a stay of execution" in such circumstances as well as Barefoot's challenge on the use of psychiatric testimony in his sentencing. Expediting its procedures, the court scheduled oral arguments for April 26. Normally, it would have heard the case next fall.
"I guess they realize something has to be done," said Burt Neuborne, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. "I'd like to see an orderly procedure established whereby nobody will be killed, nobody executed, until every possible legal avenue is exhausted. Maybe then we won't have this hysterical situation where you have to hurl yourself into various courts throughout the country."
Henry Schwarzschild, also of the ACLU, said he believed the court's action yesterday would delay all executions for at least six months. "Obviously no court is going to deny us a stay while the Supreme Court decides under what conditions they may grant them," he said.
State officials and proponents of capital punishment had applauded the way the courts dealt with the Brooks case, saying it was time for judges to allow death penalty laws to have real effect.
They argue that condemned defendants will always be able to raise some new issue and that if appeals courts must consider all of them fully no execution can take place.
Barefoot would have been the seventh man executed in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. He was only the second to fight the sentence; the others gave up or said they wanted to die.