CLEVELAND - An inmate is too mentally ill to be executed for the killings of his wife and brother-in-law, a judge ruled Friday in a decision that comes just a week after the governor issued a reprieve hours before the man was set to die.
"Abdul Awkal presently lacks the capacity to form a rational understanding as to the reason the state intends to execute him," Cuyahoga County Judge Stuart Friedman said. "Abdul Awkal may not be executed unless and until he has been restored to competency."
The judge said it's up to the defense to seek a delay. Kevin Cafferkey, Awkal's attorney, said he would promptly file an appeal of his client's scheduled execution Wednesday to the Ohio Supreme Court and Gov. John Kasich.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason said he also would appeal the judge's decision.
"Awkal changed his story on the eve of execution and blamed the CIA for executing him, after admitting that he had lied to psychiatrists and has now successfully manipulated the court," Mason said in a statement. "Delays like this are what is wrong with the death penalty."
A brother of the victims, Ali Abdul-Aziz, said the ruling means killers can avoid the death penalty by faking insanity.
"Where is the justice," he asked in an email. "All the court has done is set a precedent for all criminals, telling them: All you must do is act insane, and then you will live."
The ruling concluded several days of testimony from both sides who argued whether the 53-year-old Awkal was mentally ill when he killed his estranged wife, Latife Awkal, and brother-in-law, Mahmoud Abdul-Aziz, in a Cleveland courthouse in January 1992 as the couple prepared to take up divorce and custody issues.
Cafferkey said whatever happens on the execution issue, Awkal would never leave prison.
"Mr. Awkal was approximately 16 hours away from getting a lethal injection when Gov. Kasich issued a reprieve and certainly we're thrilled about that," Cafferkey said.
Cafferkey said it's possible Awkal could be restored to mental competence to face execution.
"When he's on anti-psychotics (medication), he does get better. They do indicate that often times the delusions will either be damped down or will go away. So it could be a case that he will be restored," he said.
But, he said, Awkal gets severe side-effects from such medications, sometimes shaking from head to foot.
Dr. Stephen Noffsinger, a psychiatrist for the state, testified during the hearing Wednesday that Awkal is mentally competent.
"Mr. Awkal had a motive to distort information. Here's a man fighting for his life," Noffsinger said.
Prosecutors said in the months before the shooting that Awkal bought a pistol and threatened to kill his wife and her family if they didn't dismiss the divorce proceedings. They also said Awkal changed his address and wrote his brother a check for most of his assets before he went to court on the day of the shooting.
But Awkal's attorneys had argued he is so mentally ill he believes he lives in a fantasy world where he is crucial to the country's Mideast war effort.
Under cross-examination by the defense, Noffsinger agreed Awkal might suffer after-effects from growing up in Lebanon during the civil war.
A death penalty opponent who has advised Awkal's attorneys also testified that Awkal feels remorse for the killings but opposed seeking clemency because he believed the CIA was pushing for his execution.
The Ohio Parole Board voted 8-1 last month against recommending mercy, with most members concluding that Awkal had planned the shooting and that it wasn't the result of a psychotic breakdown.
Kasich's decision last week for a reprieve just hours before Awkal was scheduled to die came shortly after the Ohio Supreme Court refused to delay the execution. Governors in Ohio have the ultimate say on executions.
If put to death, Awkal would be the second man Ohio executes this year since the end of an unofficial moratorium on capital punishment that lasted six months