HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A Texas inmate who killed his pregnant ex-girlfriend and her 7-year-old son more than 17 years ago was executed on Wednesday, after courts rejected his appeals over claims of religious freedom violations and indifference to his medical needs.
Stephen Barbee, 55, received a lethal injection at the state penitentiary in Huntsville. He was pronounced dead at 7:35 p.m., 26 minutes after a fatal dose of pentobarbital began flowing into his body.
Barbee had been condemned for the February 2005 deaths of Lisa Underwood, 34, and her son Jayden. Both were suffocated at their home in Fort Worth. They were later found buried in a shallow grave in nearby Denton County.
In his final statement, Barbee talked about his faith in God and hoped this would not be a sad moment for his family and friends. He did not mention Underwood or her son and did not look in the direction of his victims’ family and friends, who watched from a viewing room and locked arms with one another during the execution.
“I’m ready warden. Send me home,” Barbee said, as he cried. “I just want everyone to have peace in their hearts.”
On Monday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously declined to commute Barbee’s death sentence to a lesser penalty or to grant a four-month reprieve.
Barbee received a lethal injection on the same day that Arizona executed Murray Hooper for killing two people during a home robbery in Phoenix on New Year’s Eve 1980. Hooper received a lethal injection Wednesday morning.
The executions come despite declining support in recent years for the death penalty across all political parties. About 6 in 10 Americans favor the death penalty, according to the General Social Survey, a major trends survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. While a majority continue to express support for the death penalty, the share has declined steadily since the 1990s, when nearly three-quarters were in favor.
Barbee was the fifth inmate put to death this year in Texas. He was the last inmate scheduled for execution this year in the state.
So far, 15 people, including Barbee, have been executed across the U.S. in 2022, all by lethal injection. This year’s total number of U.S. executions is already higher than last year’s 11, which was the lowest in more than three decades.
Two more executions in the U.S. are scheduled for Thursday — one in Alabama and one in Oklahoma.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday declined an appeal from Barbee’s lawyers to halt his execution.
Barbee’s attorneys had asked the court to stay his execution, arguing his religious rights were being violated. They said that in the wake of a ruling by the high court on what spiritual advisers can do while in the execution chamber, the state prison system still had not created a written policy on the issue.
In March, the U.S. Supreme Court said states must accommodate the wishes of death row inmates who want to have their faith leaders pray and touch them during their executions. Texas prison officials didn’t formally update their policy but said they would review inmates’ petitions on a case-by-case basis and would grant most reasonable requests.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office had said in a previous court filing that Barbee’s claims were moot, as state prison officials are allowing his spiritual adviser to touch him and pray aloud during his execution. During the execution, Barbee’s spiritual adviser held his right hand and prayed aloud while the lethal injection was administered. As the powerful sedative took effect, Barbee could be heard snoring just before he let out his last breaths.
Also Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt denied a separate request by Barbee’s attorneys for an execution stay over claims the inmate’s right to avoid cruel and unusual punishment would be violated. His lawyers say Barbee had physical constraints which limited the movement of his shoulders and arms, and he would experience “intolerable pain and suffering” if he was executed in the normal manner with his arms outstretched on a gurney so that IV lines could be placed to deliver the lethal injection.
In a court filing from earlier this month, lawyers with the Texas Attorney General’s Office assured Hoyt that prison officials would make accommodations for Barbee and allow his arms to remain bent, and if needed would find another location to place the IV lines.
Prison workers took extra time before the execution to ensure IV lines could be inserted safely and without pain for Barbee, officials said. Since Barbee was not able to fully extend his arms, the IV lines were inserted in his right hand and on the side of his neck. Extra padding was provided to support his arms, which remained bent, close to his body during the execution.
“Our sympathy tonight is with the family and friends of Lisa and Jayden. We pray that they have peace,” said Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson, whose office prosecuted Barbee, in a statement.
Prosecutors said Barbee killed his ex-girlfriend and her son because he didn’t want his wife to know Underwood was seven months pregnant, presumably by him. DNA evidence later revealed Barbee wasn’t the father. Underwood owned a Fort Worth bagel shop, which was named after her son. She and her son were reported missing after failing to show up at a baby shower.
Barbee confessed to police he killed Underwood and her son but later recanted. Barbee said the confession was coerced. He has since maintained his innocent saying he was framed by his business partner.
His trial, including sentencing, took less than three days in February 2006.
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