By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY Mo. (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday ordered a stay of execution for a Missouri double murderer next week because of allegations that prison staff may have interfered with an employee who wanted to help get clemency for the death row inmate.
U.S. District Court Judge Catherine D. Perry of St. Louis ordered the stay and a preliminary injunction that could delay the scheduled execution of John Winfield, 43, who was convicted in the 1996 murder of two friends of his girlfriend.
Winfield was set to die by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. on June 18 and would be the first U.S. inmate executed since the failed attempt to execute Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29. Lockett died of a heart attack 45 minutes after a botched injection of lethal drugs.
Winfield’s lawyers sued the Missouri Department of Corrections, arguing that some staffers may have intimidated Terance Cole, a prison laundry supervisor who wanted to write a letter to recommend clemency for Winfield, based on good behavior.
“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,” wrote Joseph Luby, one of Winfield's attorneys.
He urged Governor Jay Nixon to commute Winfield’s death sentence to life without parole.
Cole thought he was entitled to write the letter as long as he was speaking for himself and not the corrections department, but later felt that he could lose his job if he wrote it, Winfield's lawsuit stated.
Judge Perry, who held a hearing on the lawsuit on Tuesday, approved the request for stay of execution on Thursday and also issued a preliminary injunction barring corrections staff from “obstructing, pressuring, discouraging, or otherwise threatening" any employee who might want to provide statements to support clemency for Winfield.
The Missouri Attorney General's office, in a written response to Winfield's motion for a stay, called the claim "meritless" and that Cole had himself confirmed that he was not threatened or coerced not to make a statement.
A spokesperson for the corrections department did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting By Kevin Murphy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Gunna Dickson)