By HOLBROOK MOHR, Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked the execution of a Mississippi inmate who killed two men in a 1995 robbery spree. The man's attorneys sought the order, not arguing guilt or innocence, but that corrections officials prevented the inmate from getting medical tests that could prove he is mentally ill.
Edwin Hart Turner, 38, had been scheduled to die by injection Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves in Jackson blocked the execution until Feb. 20. Turner's lawyers, meanwhile, could seek a longer stay.
James Craig with the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center argued at a hearing Friday that the state's corrections department policy prohibited Turner from getting tests that could prove he's mentally ill, a diagnosis they hope would help sway the U.S. Supreme Court to block the executions of Turner and others with mental illnesses. Craig also would like the tests for a possible clemency petition.
Craig said the state's corrections policy dates to the 1990s and violates prisoners' rights to have access to materials that can help them develop evidence. He had asked the court to block the execution while the judge weighs evidence about the corrections policy. The policy requires court orders for medical experts or others to visit and test inmates.
"Mr. Turner has never had a fair opportunity to present the evidence that he is the sort of seriously mentally ill prisoner who should not be executed in a humane criminal justice system," Craig said in a statement Monday.
It added: "We are simply asking that we be allowed to have access to our client so that we can have him psychiatrically assessed so that the best information is available before any decision is made to proceed with the execution."
The office of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said he hasn't yet had a chance to review the court's decision and determine whether to appeal.
"Once the review is conducted, the state will speak only through its filings in court," said Jan Schaefer, an official in Hood's office responding to a request for comment with an email.
Craig filed a separate petition last week with the U.S. Supreme Court that seeks to have the execution blocked.
That petition said Mississippi is one of 10 states that permit someone who suffered from serious mental illness at the time of the offense to be executed. Turner's lawyers want the court to prohibit the execution of mentally ill people the way it did inmates considered mentally retarded.
There's little dispute that Turner killed the men, then went home and had a meal of shrimp and cinnamon rolls before going to sleep.
Turner's lawyers argue in the petition to the U.S. Supreme Court that he inherited a serious mental illness. They argued that his father is thought to have committed suicide by shooting a gun into a shed filled with dynamite and his grandmother and great-grandmother both spent time in the state mental hospital.
Turner's face is severely disfigured from a self-inflicted gunshot wound from a suicide attempt when he was 18, in which he put a rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger, the lawyers said.
Craig said in a telephone interview Monday that Turner had spent three months in a state hospital after slitting his wrists in another suicide attempt in 1995 — prior to the killings later that year.
Craig said Turner was diagnosed with depression that year and given the antidepressant medication Prozac. Craig believes Turner was misdiagnosed and that Prozac compounded his problems.
Turner was convicted of killing the two men while robbing gas stations with a friend, Paul Murrell Stewart, in a spree that netted about $400. Stewart, 17 at the time, testified against Turner and was sentenced to life in prison.
According to court records, Stewart said he and Turner were drinking beer and smoking marijuana when they decided to rob a store Dec. 13, 1995. They picked Mims Turkey Village Truck Stop on Mississippi's U.S. Highway 82, where 37-year-old Eddie Brooks was working.
They walked inside armed with rifles.
Turner shot Brooks in the chest, according to Stewart. He said the two went behind the counter but couldn't open the cash register, not even when Turner shot at it. An enraged Turner then "placed the barrel of his gun inches from Eddie Brooks' head and pulled the trigger," the court records said.