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Missouri inmate loses 11th-hour bid for stay of execution

By Carey Gillam

(Reuters) - A man sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of two friends of his ex-girlfriend lost his bid for an 11th-hour reprieve from the U.S. Supreme Court, clearing the way for the state to carry out his execution by lethal injection early on Wednesday.

The high court in Washington rejected four separate applications for a stay of execution filed late on Tuesday by attorneys for John Winfield, 43, hours after a federal appeals court vacated a lower-court order blocking the death sentence.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Perry of St. Louis had issued the stay and a preliminary injunction on June 12 based on allegations by Winfield's attorneys that state corrections officials intimidated and threatened a prison employee who was supportive of an application by Winfield for clemency.

A panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit of Appeals initially upheld Perry's ruling on Monday, but reconsidered on appeal by Missouri officials and sided with the state on Tuesday.

Defense attorney Joseph Luby said after the Supreme Court ruling that Winfield's lawyers had no further legal actions to take.

Winfield was set to be put to death at 12:01 a.m. local time (0501 GMT) on Wednesday, in what would be the second U.S. execution since a botched lethal injection in Oklahoma in April.

Georgia inmate Marcus Wellons, 58, was executed Tuesday night for the 1989 rape and strangulation of his 15-year-old neighbor, India Roberts, whom he abducted as she walked to a school bus stop. The Supreme Court denied his requests for a stay on Tuesday night, a short time before rejecting Winfield's bid for a reprieve.

Capital punishment in the United States came under renewed debate and scrutiny since April 29, when Oklahoma killer and rapist Clayton Lockett suffered an apparent heart attack about 30 minutes after prison officials had halted his execution because of problems in administering his lethal injection.

In Winfield’s case, his lawyers have argued in court filings that the state's secrecy about where it gets its lethal injection drugs and how they are made were grounds for a stay.

Winfield was sentenced to die in 1998 after first-degree murder and assault convictions stemming from a September 1996 rampage in which he attacked an ex-girlfriend, leaving her blind and disfigured, and killed two of her friends.

(Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Bill Trott, Steve Gorman and Jeremy Laurence)

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