WILMINGTON, Del. — A federal judge on Wednesday halted the execution of convicted killer Shannon Johnson, saying he wants to hear oral arguments over claims that Johnson is mentally incompetent and should not be executed.
The decision by U.S. Chief District Judge Gregory Sleet stunned prosecutors because the incompetency claims were made by federal public defenders who were not authorized by Johnson to intervene in the case but did so anyway.
Johnson was scheduled to be executed Friday. The prosecutors said they likely would appeal Sleet’s decision to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
Johnson has waived his right to future appeals and indicated that he wants to be executed as soon as possible. His attorney also opposed the ruling.
“It is Mr. Johnson’s view that he has been afforded all constitutional due process,” Jennifer-Kate Aaronson told the judge.
Sleet directed attorneys to submit additional court filings by Friday and said he would hear oral arguments Monday.
Johnson was sentenced to death for the 2006 murder of Cameron Hamlin, 25, who was shot after Johnson found him sitting in a car with his ex-girlfriend near downtown Wilmington. Johnson later shot the former girlfriend, but she survived.
After the state Supreme Court upheld his conviction and death sentence in 2009, Johnson said he did not want to pursue any further appeals.
Following a six-day competency hearing last year, Superior Court Judge M. Jane Brady declared in February that Johnson was mentally competent to waive his right to further appeals, and that he understood the legal consequences of that decision. Last month, she scheduled the execution date after Johnson waived his right to a requirement that an execution be held no sooner than 90 days from the sentencing date.
After Johnson sought to waive his further appeals, federal public defenders tried to intervene without his consent, arguing that he was incompetent because he was mentally disabled. Brady refused to allow them to participate in the state court competency hearing, and they defied her order to turn over their files on Johnson to state prosecutors and Johnson’s state court attorneys.
Sleet subsequently ordered the federal public defenders to turn over their files to prosecutors and defense attorneys. He also voided their appointments to represent Johnson, declaring that they had misled the federal court into believing that they were acting with his knowledge and consent.
Sleet also ordered the public defenders last year to cease efforts to collect information about Johnson and not to try to intervene in any legal matter pertaining to him without explicit court permission.
Nevertheless, the public defenders filed court papers last week attempting to intervene in the case again, asserting that they were acting this time on behalf of Johnson’s sister, Lakeisha Ford.
“Because of long-standing problems he has that go back to his very early childhood, I do not believe that Shannon is mentally competent to decide for himself whether he should give up his appeals and allow the state to execute him,” Ford said in an affidavit. “He needs someone who loves him and cares about him to act for him, and I am willing to be that person.”
Johnson’s attorney told Sleet in a letter that Johnson has been estranged from his sister for two years, and that he did not authorize her attempt to intervene.
At the state’s request, Sleet and the federal public defenders agreed that Ford would appear at Monday’s hearing.
Deputy attorney general Paul Wallace, head of the state Department of Justice’s appeals unit, suggested Wednesday that the federal public defenders had ignored previous instructions not to intervene in the case again and were trying to manipulate the court.
“I am sensitive to your concern, and this judge will not permit himself to be manipulated,” Sleet responded.
Sleet nevertheless indicated that he needs more time, and additional information from attorneys, before deciding whether the state court was correct in determining that Johnson was mentally competent.
Julie Brain, chief of the capital habeas unit in the federal public defender’s office, declined to comment after the status conference.
Vandrick Hamlin, the father of the man Johnson killed, appeared stunned as he left the courtroom, saying only that he was disappointed by Sleet’s decision.