, Muskogee, OK

December 3, 2012

Inmate's attempt to stop execution rejected

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A federal judge and a Denver-based appeals court both denied Monday an Oklahoma death row inmate's attempt to stop his pending execution for two murders, rejecting the claim that he is mentally incompetent.

U.S. District Judge David Russell and a three-member panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both denied George Ochoa's appeal for a stay of execution.

Ochoa, 38, is scheduled to receive a lethal injection Tuesday for the 1993 shooting deaths of Francisco Morales and Maria Yanez during a home invasion in south Oklahoma City while three of the couple's young children were present.

The inmate has maintained his innocence and asked the state's Pardon and Parole Board last month to grant him clemency, which the panel rejected by a 4-1 vote.

"I didn't kill those people," Ochoa told the board via video conference from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester during the Nov. 16 hearing. Ochoa also claimed he was being "shocked" and "tortured" by one of his victims, a claim that prosecutors say may be an attempt to feign incompetence. He made similar allegations of being tortured and burned in a handwritten letter last month to the 10th Circuit Court.

Ochoa's attorneys maintain that his mental status has deteriorated in recent years and that the state's process for determining competency is unconstitutional, both claims that Russell and the appellate court rejected Monday.

"The procedures under Oklahoma law to bring this issue to the proper judicial authorities are wholly lacking in minimal constitutional safeguards because the warden is in charge of the process," attorney James Hankins wrote in his request for a stay.

Russell wrote that Ochoa does not support his claim of insanity with an expert opinion and that his demeanor at the November clemency hearing suggested that he was aware of the process and the consequences if clemency was denied.

"Although it may be possible that he suffers from delusions of being electrocuted, his answers to direct questions were coherent, responsive and displayed an understanding of the process and of his impending fate," Russell wrote.

Russell also ruled that Oklahoma's procedure for determining sanity, which involves the prison warden determining if there is reason to initiate a sanity hearing, is not unconstitutional or contrary to Supreme Court precedent. The appellate court also ruled that the procedure was previously upheld.

Although prosecutors have acknowledged there was little evidence to suggest a motive for the killings, Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Miller said there was no doubt that Ochoa and his co-defendant, Osbaldo Torres, were responsible.

Miller suggested during the clemency hearing that an argument between Ochoa, an admitted gang member, and Morales over a girl Ochoa was dating may have sparked the killings, but that evidence was never presented at trial.

The victims were found in their bed, shot multiple times with a semi-automatic pistol.

Ochoa and Torres were stopped by police near the crime scene and were described by police as "sweating and nervous," court records show.

Torres, a Mexican citizen, also was convicted and sentenced to die for the couple's deaths, but his sentence was reduced by then-Gov. Brad Henry in 2004. Henry imposed a life-without-parole sentence after Mexican officials raised concerns that Torres was not given a chance to speak with the Mexican consulate after being accused, as required by international conventions.