ST. LOUIS - A federal judge on Thursday granted a stay of execution for Missouri death row inmate John Winfield, less than a week before the convicted killer was scheduled to be put to death, citing concerns that a prison worker was intimidated into deciding against writing a clemency letter on Winfield's behalf.
It wasn't immediately clear if the state planned to appeal the ruling by U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry in St. Louis. A spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said the ruling was still under review. Messages seeking comment from the Missouri Department of Corrections were not immediately returned.
Winfield, 43, was scheduled to die at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday for killing two St. Louis County women in 1996.
His execution would be among the first since late April, when the death of an Oklahoma inmate raised new concerns about lethal injection drugs and the secretive process many states use to obtain them. Clayton Lockett's vein collapsed on April 29 and he died 43 minutes later of a heart attack after he was injected with drugs obtained from a secret source. President Barack Obama called the botched execution "deeply disturbing" and called for a review of how the death penalty is applied in the United States.
No one has been executed since. Marcus Wellons is scheduled to be put to death June 17 in Georgia, and two executions are scheduled for June 18: Winfield and John Henry in Florida.
Missouri is among several states that obtain execution drugs from unnamed compounding pharmacies. Other appeals by Winfield cited concerns that the unproven quality of the drug could cause pain and suffering for the inmate.
But it was a different appeal that earned the stay from Perry.
Court documents show that Terry Cole, the laundry director at the Potosi Correctional Center, which houses death row inmates in Missouri, told Winfield's attorneys he supported Winfield's clemency request and was willing to write a letter on Winfield's behalf.
The judge wrote in her ruling that Cole was told by a prison administrator that there was no policy prohibiting such a letter, but workers must tell supervisors if they have contact with an inmate's attorney.
But the judge said that on May 20, a corrections department investigator told Cole he was under investigation for alleged "over-familiarity" with Winfield. Cole eventually decided against writing the letter.
Cole denied being threatened, but the judge said evidence indicated he feared for his job.
"The evidence presented to me shows that Winfield is likely to be able to prove at a later trial that prison officials took actions to intimidate Cole to keep him from providing support for Winfield's clemency petition," the judge wrote.
Winfield attorney Joseph Luby said Cole supervised Winfield's work at the prison and spends eight hours a day with him. He said Cole has described Winfield as among the "elite 1 percent of all inmates" in terms of his behavior, and is an inmate who has served as a mentor for young prisoners.
"This 20-year corrections staff member was made to fear for his job when he wanted to tell the truth about Mr. Winfield's remarkable rehabilitation and the positive good he will continue to do if his life is spared," Luby said in a statement.
In a separate case, a federal appeals court in St. Louis has set a September hearing regarding Russell Bucklew, whose late May execution was delayed by the U.S. Supreme Court hours before he was scheduled to die.
Bucklew, 46, suffers from a rare congenital condition that causes weakened and malformed blood vessels as well as tumors in his nose and throat. The last-minute appeal cited those medical concerns as well as the secrecy surrounding the state's lethal injection drug and its supplier. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled a hearing on Bucklew's case for Sept. 9