U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stays execution of Dexter Johnson

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has granted a stay of execution to Dexter Johnson based on evidence of his intellectual disability, less than 24 hours before he was scheduled to be put to death for the murders of Maria Aparece and Huy Ngo in Harris County in 2006.  It is the second time in five months a federal court has intervened in this case and stopped Johnson’s execution. On April 30, 2019, a federal judge stayed Johnson’s May 2 execution date after determining his newly-appointed lawyer needed more time to review the case and investigate any undeveloped claims. 

As reported by the Associated Press, a three-judge panel issued an 18-page opinion finding that under recent case law and intellectual disability standards, Johnson is sufficiently impaired to disqualify him for Thursday’s scheduled execution. Earlier this week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had denied Johnson’s motion for a stay as well as his habeas petition without reviewing the merits of the claims he raised, including evidence of his intellectual disability and the false and misleading testimony of a State’s witness at trial. 

According to the Texas Tribune, the federal judges cited numerous deficits presented by Johnson’s attorneys, such as struggling to articulate words and not being able to follow bus directions or manage money. They also noted that an expert witness at trial who claimed Johnson was not intellectually disabled said he would no longer testify to that. Their ruling sends the case back to the district court to look into newly raised claims of intellectual disability.

Dexter Johnson was the first of 13 Texas inmates with execution dates over the next four months.  Next week, on August 21, the State of Texas is scheduled to execute Larry Swearingen. He has consistently maintained his innocence of the 1998 murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter, for which he was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence.  This is Swearingen’s sixth serious execution date since 2007.