A federal appellate court halted the execution of Texas inmate Dexter Johnson on Wednesday evening, less than 24 hours before he was set to die.
The court stayed his execution and sent the case back to the district court to look into newly raised claims of intellectual disability.
Johnson, 31, was sentenced to death for his role in a double murder in 2006 days after he turned 18. Johnson and four other teens carjacked and robbed Maria Aparece, 23, and Huy Ngo, 17, while they sat in her car outside Ngo's house. According to court records, Johnson and the others took the young couple to a secluded area where Johnson raped Aparece before he and another teen shot them both, killing them.
The murders were part of what Harris County prosecutors have described as a 25-day crime spree by Johnson and others that also included three other slayings. Johnson has been on death row since his conviction in 2007.
In recent appeals, Johnson has argued that he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty under U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Intellectual disability has become a main focus of Texas death penalty law after years of back and forth between the U.S. Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in the case of Bobby Moore. Ultimately, the high court invalidated Texas’ method of determining the disability, and then, after the state court still ruled Moore was not intellectually disabled, overruled that decision in February and said he has shown that he is.
Johnson had already argued he was intellectually disabled in an April appeal rejected by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, shortly before a May execution date that a federal judge later postponed in an unrelated filing. But a new attorney raised a similar claim this month in both state and federal court, mentioning recent IQ and neuropsychological tests that put Johnson's IQ below the threshold of intellectual disability. The attorney also noted severe limitations in language skills and a “pronounced stutter.”
His attorney argued that the disability could be raised under new evidence because medical standards on intellectual disability have changed since his trial.
The state court again dismissed Johnson’s appeal Tuesday, but the federal appellate court issued a stay of execution Wednesday evening. He was set to be executed after 6 p.m. Thursday.
In deciding to stop the execution, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals listed numerous deficits Johnson had, such as struggling to articulate words and not being able to follow bus directions or manage money. The judges also noted that an expert witness at trial who claimed Johnson was not intellectually disabled said he would no longer testify to that.
But the stay of execution doesn't state that Johnson is ineligible for the death penalty. The case goes back to the district court, which will look further into the appeal.
Harris County, which argued for the Court of Criminal Appeals to lessen Moore’s sentence, fought against Johnson’s claim of intellectual disability in recent filings. Prosecutors said that at trial, Johnson raised not the issue of intellectual disability, but of low intellectual functioning caused by traumatic brain injury or mental illness, according to their filing. They also cited slightly higher IQ scores from the time of his trial and stated Johnson is "a man deserving of the ultimate punishment."
Johnson was set to be the fourth execution in Texas this year. A dozen more are scheduled through December.