HUNTSVILLE, Texas — A Texas man was spared from the death chamber Wednesday after a federal appeals court refused to overturn a district judge's reprieve for the prisoner who's facing execution for killing a neighbor more than 15 years ago.
The decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came after attorneys for Anthony Bartee filed a civil rights lawsuit against the district attorney in Bexar County, where Bartee was convicted of the 1996 shooting and stabbing death of David Cook in San Antonio.
"I'd like to thank everyone for supporting me through these trials and tribulations," Bartee told a Texas Department of Criminal Justice official who informed him of the reprieve. "Put peace in your heart. God is working through all of us. And God bless us all."
The court decision came about 90 minutes after Bartee could have been put to death. Texas prison authorities won't carry out the lethal injection if appeals are unresolved.
The civil rights action was filed just hours before the six-hour execution window opened at 6 p.m. CDT Wednesday. The U.S. Supreme Court already had rejected other appeals from Bartee's lawyers.
Linda Cook, the sister of the man who was killed, had planned to witness the execution in Huntsville. She said the reprieve was "just a delay, not the end." But she called it unfair and said it means her family will have to "endure even more of this."
Bartee's attorneys argued his civil rights were violated because prosecutors were withholding additional crime scene evidence that could possibly exclude him as the killer. They want the evidence tested for DNA.
A federal judge in San Antonio, acting on the lawsuit, gave Bartee the reprieve. Prosecutors immediately appealed to get it overturned, calling the lower court's reprieve improper and arguing that letting it stand would "reward late filers and create a perpetual motion machine of last-minute attempts to stay executions."
A 5th Circuit panel reviewing the case said it wanted more information but put off a ruling Wednesday night. If the court eventually rules against Bartee, it could be another couple of months before he is set to die.
Bartee was removed from a small holding cell adjacent to the death chamber and returned to a prison about 45 miles to the east where the state's male death row inmates are housed.
Both the civil suit and the appeals rejected by the Supreme Court focused on Bartee's goal to win additional DNA testing of crime scene evidence.
Bartee was convicted of killing the 37-year-old Cook at Cook's home in San Antonio and stealing his prized cherry red Harley Davidson motorcycle. Bartee was on parole at the time of the crime. He had been released 15 months earlier after serving nearly 12 years in prison for raping two women.
The reprieve isn't Bartee's first. He won an execution delay in February so two strands of hair found in the victim's hand could undergo further DNA testing using more sophisticated techniques. The tests showed the hair was the victim's.
Bartee's attorneys now want DNA testing on drinking glasses and cigarette butts found at the crime scene, hoping to bolster his contention that others were responsible for the killing.
State attorneys said the evidence is not new and that "multiple rounds of DNA testing" have already been done, leaving nothing left to test.
Cook was found dead by relatives who went to his home after he didn't show up for work. He had been shot twice in the back of his head and stabbed in the back. His throat was also cut.
His 9 mm pistol was gone. So was his prized cherry red Harley Davidson motorcycle.
A neighbor had heard gunshots from Cook's home followed by the sound of Cook's motorcycle starting.
Investigators have said that the night before the shooting, Bartee tried to hire someone to kill a man he identified as David. They said he was seen with the red motorcycle the day after the killing and told people it was his bike.
Bartee denied having any knowledge of Cook's death. But when confronted about having Cook's motorcycle, he told detectives he had been working on it in Cook's garage. He said he took off after hearing gunshots because he feared for his own safety.
He blamed the slaying on two gang members he identified only as "Snake" and "Throw Down." Their existence never was confirmed.