Federal judge grants stay in Missouri execution - KCTV5 News

Federal judge grants stay in Missouri execution

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A federal judge on Tuesday granted a stay of execution for John Middleton, hours before he was scheduled to be put to death for killing three people in rural Missouri out of fear that they would tell police about his drug dealing.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry ruled that there was enough question about Middleton's sanity that a hearing should determine if he is fit to be executed. The U.S. Constitution prohibits executing the mentally ill.

"(Middleton) has provided evidence that he has been diagnosed with a variety of mental health disorders, and has received a number of psychiatric medications over the years," Perry wrote, adding that other inmates "indicate that he frequently talks to people who are not there, and tells stories that could not have had any basis in reality."

The Missouri Attorney General's office was reviewing the ruling, spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said.

Middleton, 54, is scheduled to die by injection at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday at the state prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri. He would be the sixth man put to death in Missouri this year — only Florida and Texas have performed more executions in 2014 with seven each.

In a separate ruling, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals late Monday refused to halt the execution on Middleton's claim that he is innocent of the killings. That case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Richard Sindel, one of Middleton's attorneys.

Middleton was convicted of killing Randy "Happy" Hamilton and Stacey Hodge in early June 1995. He then killed Alfred Pinegar several days later, out of concern that they would tell police about Middleton's methamphetamine dealing. Middleton's girlfriend is serving life in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in all three cases.

Middleton's attorneys contend that the wrong man was arrested, citing new evidence that included a witness who came forward in February.

"We're looking at a situation where if (Middleton) had zealous representation at trial he likely would have been acquitted," said Joseph Perkovich, another attorney for Middleton.

Middleton was a meth dealer in sparsely-populated northern Missouri in the mid-1990s. After several drug suspects were arrested on June 10, 1995, he allegedly told a friend, "The snitches around here are going to start going down."

A day later, according to court records, Middleton and his girlfriend met Hamilton and Hodge on a gravel road. Prosecutors said Middleton shot and killed them both and put the bodies in the trunk of Hamilton's car.

Pinegar, another meth dealer, was shot in the face on June 23, 1995. His body was found in a field near Bethany.

Middleton allegedly told acquaintances about his exploits. He was charged in all three killings and convicted in 1997.

A witness with another story emerged this year.

In February, a man whose name is not disclosed because he fears retribution signed an affidavit saying that two rival meth dealers drove him to a rural area soon after Pinegars's death and accused him of being a snitch. He said the men showed him Pinegar's body, saying, "There's already been three people killed. You want to be number four?"

The new witness said the two dealers then beat him unconscious with a baseball bat and raped his girlfriend.

Harrison County Sheriff Josh Eckerson agreed to take a new look at the case, but said his investigation found no evidence to back up the new assertions. He is convinced that Middleton was the real killer.

Perkovich said police and prosecutors botched the initial investigation, working closely with the rival meth dealers rather than considering them suspects.

They also say that a Missouri trooper provided a forensic scientist with the wrong date on which insect remains were retrieved from Pinegar's body — a method used to determine the time of death. That scientist said in an affidavit earlier this year that his revised calculations show that Pinegar died one day later than originally thought — when Middleton was in jail in Iowa on an unrelated charge.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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