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U.S. judge stays execution of convicted triple murderer in Missouri

By Eric M. Johnson

(Reuters) - A United States judge has halted the execution of a former methamphetamine dealer who was convicted of murdering three people with ties to the drug trade who he feared would inform on him to police.

John Middleton, 54, met a standard for mental incapacity "showing that he is incompetent to be executed" and that a hearing should be held, U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry wrote in an opinion issued a little more than an hour before the execution was due to take place.

Middleton was scheduled to die by lethal injection after midnight on Wednesday at a state prison in Bonne Terre, but a flurry of rulings and appeals eventually staved off the execution.

Earlier on Tuesday, Perry had issued a stay of the execution, ruling in favor of Middleton's attorneys. They had argued that his mental incapacity meant he was not competent to be executed.

But that stay was lifted by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court also denied a request to stay the execution.

Lawyers for Middleton filed a new motion, which Perry granted, halting the execution until the appeals court rules.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who has argued Middleton was trying to manipulate the court system with false claims of mental incompetence, appealed the ruling, his office said.

"The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals indicated there will not be any ruling tonight and that they will pick up this matter in the morning," said Missouri Department of Corrections spokesman Mike O'Connell.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional to execute inmates with mental disabilities.

Perry ruled that Middleton had not had enough time for a complete evaluation by a mental health expert and that his claim had not been exhausted before Missouri courts because of a lack of clear procedure and confusion under the state law and in the courts.

The case involves the killings of Randy Hamilton, Stacey Hodge and Alfred Pinegar in the summer of 1995. Law enforcement officials said the three were tied to the drug trade and Middleton was a meth dealer at the time. He was convicted of killing all three, to keep them from becoming police informers.

Apart from claims of mental incapacity, Middleton's lawyers have argued new evidence shows Middleton is innocent of the killings.

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.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by David Goodman, Larry King)

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