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Apr 16, 7:50 PM EDT

High court refuses to halt Texas man's execution for killings of boy, mom, grandmother



HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) -- The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to halt the scheduled Wednesday evening execution of a man convicted of killing three members of a Corpus Christi family.

The high court, on a 5-4 vote, rejected arguments from attorneys for Jose Villegas who said he is mentally impaired and ineligible for the death penalty. The ruling came about 30 minutes after a six-hour window opened for Villegas' lethal injection for the fatal stabbings 13 years ago of his ex-girlfriend, her 3-year-old son and her mother.

Villegas' lawyers, in their last-day appeal, asked the high court to stop his lethal injection, saying testing in February showed he had an IQ of 59. They said it was "a score clearly indicating" mental impairment that could make him ineligible for the death penalty.

Villegas, 39, would be the seventh prisoner executed this year in Texas, the nation's most active death penalty state.

The Supreme Court has prohibited execution of mentally impaired people, although states have been allowed to devise procedures to make their own determinations. Courts also have embraced scientific studies that consider a 70 IQ a threshold for impairment.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, voted 6-3 Monday to reject Villegas' appeal as improper and wouldn't consider the merits of the arguments.

Villegas' attorneys argued to the Supreme Court that the Texas court "has candidly disavowed the established diagnostic criteria" and is deliberately using unscientific standards to narrow the number of prisoners who can cite mental impairment as a reason to keep them from execution.

The Texas Attorney General's office disputed the IQ finding, saying previous examinations of Villegas showed no mental impairment and the number cited in his appeal was based on testing after he received an execution date and motivation to not do well on the test. State attorneys also argued his lawyers had 10 years to raise impairment claims but didn't do so until days before his scheduled punishment.

The 11th-hour appeal was "nothing more than a calculated (albeit meritless) attempt to postpone his execution," Assistant Attorney General Jefferson Clendenin wrote to the justices in response to the appeal.

Villegas was convicted of fatally stabbing Erida Salazar, 23, her 3-year-old son, Jacob, and Salazar's mother, Alma Perez, 51, in January 2001. Their bodies were discovered by Salazar's father when he returned home after being excused from jury duty. Each had been stabbed at least 19 times.

Villegas, a former cook, dishwasher and laborer, was free on bond for a sexual assault charge and was supposed to go on trial the day of the killings for an incident in which a woman said he punched her in the face.

Police spotted Villegas driving Salazar's stolen car and he led them on a chase that ended with him on foot and urging officers to shoot him. When arresting him, police found three bags of cocaine in his baseball cap.

Following his conviction for capital murder, Villegas was convicted of two counts of indecency with a child related to the daughter of the woman he was accused of punching in the face prior to the slayings. Relatives have said Salazar's mother had urged her daughter to break up with Villegas when she learned of the sex charges against him.

Villegas also had convictions for making terroristic threats to kill women, burglary and possessing inhalants.

Defense attorneys at his murder trial focused on trying to keep him from going to death row. They argued the slayings were not intentional and Villegas was mentally ill. A defense psychiatrist testified Villegas experienced "intermittent explosive disorder," a condition that led to uncontrollable rages.

Villegas would be the third Texas inmate executed with a new stock of pentobarbital from a provider corrections officials have refused to identify, citing the possibility of threats of violence against the supplier. The Supreme Court has upheld that stance.

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