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Stay granted in Missouri execution; state appeals

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court late Tuesday refused to halt the execution of a Missouri inmate accused of killing three people in 1995, but defense attorneys said they were continuing to fight in the courts and had requested a stay at the district court level. Defense attorney Richard Sindel said late Tuesday that U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry granted the stay. Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster's office, said the office had filed a notice of appeal. John Middleton was set to die at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday for killing three people in rural northern Missouri in 1995 out of fear that they would tell police about his drug dealing. Perry had ruled earlier Tuesday that there was enough question about Middleton's mental health that a hearing should determine if he is fit to be executed, writing in her ruling that he "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." Courts have established that executing the mentally ill is unconstitutional. But hours later, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis overturned the stay. Middleton's lawyers appealed that ruling, but the Supreme Court refused to stop the execution. Middleton, 54, 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. He was convicted of killing Randy "Happy" Hamilton, Stacey Hodge and Alfred Pinegar out of concern that they would tell police about Middleton's methamphetamine dealing. Middleton's girlfriend, Maggie Hodges, 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," attorney Joseph Perkovich said. Koster disagreed. "The time for enforcement of Missouri's criminal judgment against John Middleton is long overdue," Koster wrote in a court response on Tuesday. 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 Pinegar'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.

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