By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) - A federal judge in Missouri on Tuesday stayed the impending execution of a 54-year-old man convicted of three drug-related murders after the inmate's lawyers lodged a series of appeals, including arguments he is mentally incompetent and innocent.
John Middleton was scheduled to die by lethal injection in the execution chamber at the Missouri state prison in Bonne Terre at 12:01 a.m. CDT on Wednesday.
But U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry issued a stay in response to arguments by Middleton's attorneys that he is not competent to be executed.
The inmate made "a substantial threshold showing of insanity" and provided evidence showing he had been diagnosed with a variety of mental health disorders after a long history of abusing methamphetamine and other drugs, Perry ruled. Middleton is entitled to a hearing to present evidence about his mental status, the judge said in her ruling.
The Missouri Attorney General's Office filed a motion to vacate the stay with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that Middleton's claim of mental incompetency was not valid and was a last-ditch effort to create an "artificial time shortage" so he could gain a stay.
"The time for enforcement of Missouri's criminal judgment against John Middleton is long overdue," Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster wrote in the motion to vacate.
Lawyers representing Middleton have made a number of appeals to try to hold off his execution, arguing among other matters that new evidence shows Middleton is innocent of the 1995 killings that law enforcement said were tied to methamphetamine dealing in two counties in northern Missouri.
In an earlier appeal to the 8th Circuit appellate court, Middleton's attorneys said prosecutors relied on perjured testimony to convict him and that "vital exculpatory evidence" was suppressed at his trial. The appeals court denied the request for a stay of execution on Monday.
The case involves the killings of Randy Hamilton, Stacey Hodge and Alfred Pinegar, who were reported by law enforcement to be tied to the drug trade in the summer of 1995. Middleton was a meth dealer at the time, and was convicted of killing the three to stop them from working as police informants.
Middleton's attorneys allege the actual killers were other meth dealers who were exacting revenge on the supposed snitches.