HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- The Supreme Court granted a stay of execution Tuesday to a 35-year-old self-styled former voodoo priest who said he wanted to die and asked for a ritual lump of dirt for his last meal.
The court granted the stay at 6:40 p.m. EDT, less than six hours before James E. Smith was to die by injection after midnight for the 1983 slaying of Houston insurance man Larry D. Rohus.
The court ordered the execution halted pending disposition of a petition filed by Smith's mother, who sought to block her son's death despite his stated desire to die.
The petition was filed with Supreme Court Justice Byron White, who referred the appeal to the full court. There was no indication of dissent in the court's ruling staying the execution..
Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, Texas Department of Corrections spokesman Charles Brown said Smith's final meal request for a lump of dirt, known as rhaeakunda, had been rejected.
'Of course, this request will not be honored,' said Brown, who did not know the origin of the word rhaeakunda. He said Smith described himself as a former voodoo priest but gave no details.
Brown said Smith gritted his teeth and said something unintelligible upon learning of the stay Tuesday night.
Smith's mother, Alexis Hamilton of Indianapolis, asked White on Monday to stop her son's death by injection until a court can determine Smith's mental competency. She said it is a violation of constitutional rights to execute a person whose mental competency is in doubt.
Hamilton claimed Smith was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a Florida robbery 10 years ago, that a stroke suffered by her son in prison impaired his mental abilities and that he attempted suicide in 1981.
Hamilton also asked for a stay until the high court decides another Texas case involving procedures for jury selection, and claimed Smith's trial attorney failed to properly represent him.
The request was filed with White hours after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to intervene in Smith's case Monday.
Assistant Attorney General Bob Walt said there is no evidence Smith is incompetent.
'They're at this point merely saying he (Smith) is incompetent to waive further appeals,' he said. 'From what we've seen of him, he seems extremely competent to do so.'
Walt said there was ample precedent against Supreme Court intervention in Smith's case on the basis of his mother's appeal.
'They're going to the Supreme Court and saying, 'Please make the factual determination that this boy is incompetent,'' Walt said. 'They are an appeals court. They are not a court to make a factual determination. They rely on lower federal courts to make factual determinations.'
Smith last week told two anti-capital punishment activitists he believed were trying to intervene in his case, 'Let me get my execution over with and leave me alone.'