A Texas inmate who murdered his pregnant ex-girlfriend and her 7-year-old son was executed by lethal injection on Wednesday after his appeals over claims of religious freedom violations and indifference to his medical needs were rejected.
Stephen Barbee, 55, was pronounced dead at 7:35 p.m. at the state penitentiary in Huntsville. He was the fifth Texas inmate to be executed this year.
Barbee was sentenced to death for the murders of Lisa Underwood, 34, and her son Jayden. Both of the victims were suffocated at their Fort Worth, Texas, home and were later found buried in a shallow grave in nearby Denton County.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined Barbee’s lawyers’ appeal to stay his execution arguing his religious rights were being violated in the wake of a ruling by the higher court. The ruling involved the case of Texas death row inmate John Henry Ramirez who won the legal battle to have his pastor in the death chamber during his execution (pdf). Ramirez was executed on Oct. 5.
Barbee’s lawyers said Texas prison officials had not formally updated their policies to comply with the Supreme Court ruling to accommodate the wishes of death row inmates who want their faith leaders to pray over and touch them during their executions.
Earlier in November, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt in Houston issued a preliminary injunction stating Barbee could only be executed after the state issued a clear policy protecting the religious rights of inmates. On Nov. 11, the injunction was overturned by the 5th Circuit of Appeals, which ruled it was overbroad (pdf).
On Tuesday, Hoyt issued an injunction based on Barbee’s religious rights. It was immediately appealed by the Texas Attorney General’s Office, which said Barbee’s claims were unfounded since the state had agreed to allow his clergy to hold his hand and pray over him during the execution.
Hoyt denied on Tuesday a separate request by Barbee’s attorney to stay his execution over claims that the inmate would experience “intolerable suffering and pain” due to physical constraints that caused limited mobility in his arms and shoulders. Prison officials agreed to make accommodations if necessary. During execution, the arms of the inmate are normally stretched out on the gurney to allow the IV lines to be placed in the arm.
Two days before his execution, the Texas State Board of Pardons and Paroles declined to commute Barbee’s death sentence to a lesser penalty or grant a four-month reprieve.
Barbee was sentenced to death in February 2006 after a three-day trial.
State prosecutors told the jury that Barbee killed his ex-girlfriend and her son because he didn’t want his wife to find out about Underwood’s pregnancy. Underwood, who was seven months pregnant, was reported missing after she didn’t show up for her baby shower. DNA evidence later showed Barbee was not the father of Underwood’s unborn child.
Barbee confessed to the murders but later recanted and had maintained his innocence since then.
In a final statement, Barbee spoke of his faith in God and thanked his minister who accompanied him.
“I’m ready warden. Send me home,” he said. “I just want everyone to have peace in their hearts.”
Barbee did not mention Underwood or or her son and did not look toward the victims’ family and friends who were in attendance.
There are currently 199 inmates on death row in Texas. Barbee’s was the last scheduled execution in Texas for this year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.