Questions over convicted killer Robert Simon Jr.’s mental state have stopped the clock on his execution, but it’s debatable how long the reprieve will last.
Just hours before Simon was to be executed Tuesday for killing a Quitman County farm family in 1990, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals granted a temporary stay to review a claim that Simon suffered a head injury in January that has made him incompetent for the death penalty.
Judge Grady Jolly, in stating why he concurred with the two other judges, said medical records and other documents “raise substantial questions” as to whether he understands he committed a crime and is about to be executed.
“Although this evidence has been presented, this panel has no basis to consider whether his claim has any merit, whether it is believable or unbelievable,” wrote Jolly, who granted the temporary stay along with judges James Dennis and Edward Prado.
Simon’s attorney, Tom Freeland of Oxford, had petitioned the state and federal courts for a neurological exam. “I have believed that Robert Simon was entitled to a hearing and it appears that the 5th Circuit has agreed.”
But the federal panel has not yet indicated what its next step will be, whether Simon will be examined or when a hearing could be held.
“It could be a day or it could be three months,” Attorney General Jim Hood said. “We hope it doesn’t come to that, but you just never know.”
Simon, 47, was sentenced to death for the killings of Carl “Bubba” Parker, his wife, Bobbie Jo, and their 12-year-old son Gregory. He received a life sentence for the killing of Charlotte Parker, the slain couple’s 9-year-old daughter, after a lone juror could not agree to a death sentence.
The family had returned from a church service on Feb. 2, 1990, to find Simon and his accomplice, Anthony Carr, burglarizing their home. Carr, 45, also is on death row.
Many, including the prosecutor who tried Simon and Carr, were surprised by the court’s decision.
“I believe the execution will occur, but it’s a shame to put it off like this,” said Laurence Mellen, who retired as district attorney in 2009. “My hopes are that the 5th Circuit just didn’t have the time to review the case.”
After shooting Bubba, Bobbie Jo, Gregory and Charlotte Parker multiple times, raping the little girl and chopping the father’s finger off to steal his wedding ring, the killers set the home on fire and left the bodies to burn.
Charlotte Parker died of smoke inhalation, while the others died of gunshot wounds. “It was devastating,” Mellen said. “He should have been executed 15 years ago.”
Members of the Parker family said they are devastated by the delay.
“We were so close,” said Scott Parker, Bubba Parker’s son from a previous marriage. “We’re ready for closure.”
At this point, the Court of Appeals could determine that the evidence doesn’t merit a full neurological exam or it could return the case to a lower court for additional review.
“The way we read it is that the court said it just didn’t have time,” Hood said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
If the court decides to order a full exam, experts will be hired for the defense and the state – at taxpayers’ expense – to evaluate Simon.
Simon suffered a head injury Jan. 7, medical records show. His attorney alleges it has caused memory loss and impaired Simon’s cognitive skills. Freeland, in an affidavit, said Simon did not recognize him in a meeting in March and had trouble carrying on a conversation.
“He was unable to understand what was occurring in his case,” Freeland wrote.
Lower courts have ruled there was not enough evidence to show Simon is not mentally competent.
Corrections officials, relatives of the Parkers and others have said they are skeptical of the claims.
“He’s sharp. He knows what he’s doing,” Mellen said.
Simon already had told corrections officials what he wanted for his last meal – fried chicken legs, pinto beans and watermelon – and was preparing his final statement when the court issued its order.
Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said Simon yelled, “They said I was a monster,” and laid down on his cell bed when told of the delay.