Texas inmate set to be executed for killing 2 stepsons

This undated photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows Robert Sparks. The Texas inmate who says he is intellectually disabled is set to be executed Wednesday evening, Sept. 25, 2019, for fatally stabbing his two stepsons during a 2007 attack in their North Texas home that also killed his wife. Sparks, 45, faces lethal injection for the September 2007 slayings of 9-year-old Harold Sublet and 10-year-old Raekwon Agnew in their Dallas home. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP)

A Texas inmate who says he's intellectually disabled is facing execution for fatally stabbing his two stepsons during a 2007 attack in their Dallas home that also killed his wife

HUNTSVILLE, Texas — The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to halt the scheduled execution of a Texas inmate who fatally stabbed his two stepsons during a 2007 attack that also left his wife dead.

Robert Sparks has argued that he's intellectually disabled. The 45-year-old is facing lethal injection for the slayings of 9-year-old Harold Sublet and 10-year-old Raekwon Agnew.

Prosecutors say the attack in September 2007 began when Sparks stabbed his wife, 30-year-old Chare Agnew, 18 times as she lay in her bed. Sparks then went into the boys' bedroom and separately took them into the kitchen, where he stabbed them. Raekwon was stabbed at least 45 times. Authorities say Sparks then raped his 12- and 14-year-old stepdaughters.

Sparks' attorneys had asked the Supreme Court to intervene on the execution, alleging his trial jury was improperly influenced because a bailiff wore a tie with an image of a syringe that showed his support for the death penalty. Sparks also alleged a prosecution witness at his trial provided false testimony regarding his prison classification if a jury chose life without parole rather than a death sentence.

The court refused the final appeal, clearing the way for the lethal injection to be carried out. In the ruling, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that while she didn't disagree with the denial, she found the bailiff's actions "deeply troubling."

Lower courts and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles also turned down requests by Sparks' attorneys to stop his execution.

Sparks would be the 16th inmate put to death this year in the U.S. and the seventh in Texas. Seven more executions are scheduled in Texas this year.

On Tuesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to stop his execution on claims he's intellectually disabled, saying his attorneys had not presented sufficient evidence to show Sparks is mentally disabled and had failed to raise such a claim in a timely manner.

In August, the 5th Circuit did grant a stay for Dexter Johnson, another Texas death row inmate who also claims he is intellectually disabled. In that case, the appeals court ruled Johnson had made a sufficient showing of possible intellectual disability that needed further review.

After his arrest, Sparks told police he fatally stabbed his wife and stepsons because he believed they were trying to poison him. Sparks told a psychologist that a voice told him "to kill them because they were trying to kill me."

Sparks' lawyers have argued he suffers from severe mental illness and has been diagnosed as a delusional psychotic and with schizoaffective disorder, a condition characterized by hallucinations.

A psychologist hired by Sparks' attorneys said in an affidavit this month that Sparks "meets full criteria for a diagnosis of" intellectual disability.

"Without a stay of execution, it is likely that Texas will execute an intellectually disabled man," Seth Kretzer and Jonathan Landers, Sparks' appellate attorneys, wrote last month in court documents.

The Supreme Court in 2002 barred execution of mentally disabled people but has given states some discretion to decide how to determine intellectual disability. However, justices have wrestled with how much discretion to allow.

The Texas Attorney General's Office, which called the killings "monstrous crimes," said in court documents that Sparks' "own trial expert testified that he was not intellectually disabled."

His attorneys said that at the time of his trial, Sparks was not deemed intellectually disabled, but changes since then in how Texas makes such determinations and updates to the handbook used by medical professionals to diagnose mental disorders would change that.

On whether Sparks' jury was improperly influenced by the bailiff's tie with an image of a syringe, the attorney general's office said the jury foreperson indicated she never saw the tie and had no knowledge of it affecting the jurors.

The attorney general's office said the testimony from the prosecution witness on prison classification was corrected on cross-examination.

"Sparks committed a heinous crime which resulted in the murders of two young children. He is unable to overcome the overwhelming testimony" in his case, the attorney general's office said in its court filing with the Supreme Court.

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Lozano reported from Houston.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

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