The court's order postponed the execution of Brandon Joseph Rhode, 31, so his attorneys have a chance to consult with their client and file a new mental competency challenge. Georgia corrections officials have rescheduled the execution for Friday at 9 a.m.
Rhode's attorney Brian Kammer filed an emergency motion arguing that the attempted suicide proves Rhode was "incompetent" and that executing him violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
"He's utterly terrified and just hopeless," said Kammer, who said his client tried to slit his wrists and his throat. "He was very morose, frightened and subdued. This was a product of him just being in terror, of losing hope altogether."
Rhode was convicted in 2000 of the killings of Steven Moss, 37, his 11-year-old son Bryan and 15-year-old daughter Kristin during a burglary of their Jones County home. His co-conspirator, Daniel Lucas, was also sentenced to death in a separate trial and is on death row.
Rhode and Lucas were ransacking the home in search of valuables in April 1998 when Bryan Moss saw them through a front window, and entered through a back door with a baseball bat, prosecutors said. They say the two then wrestled Bryan to a chair and Lucas shot him in the shoulder.
When the two men heard Kristin approaching the house, Rhode forced her to a chair and shot her twice with a pistol, according to court records. Rhode ambushed Steven Moss when he arrived home, shooting him. Lucas later shot each of the victims again to make sure they were dead, according to the records.
At the February 2000 trial, Rhode's roommate Chad Jackson said the two men told him the next day that they had both shot the victims. And Danny Ray Bell, a friend of Rhode's, told police that Rhode told him he had "messed up big time" and shot a girl and a man and needed to quickly get rid of some weapons.
Rhode also told investigators he admitted firing at Kristin with the pistol, and he led officers to two locations where he and Lucas had dumped two pistols. Experts matched them to bullets retrieved at the crime scene and the victims' bodies.
During the sentencing phase, Rhode's defense attorneys argued that Lucas killed the three victims while Rhode "turned his head and closed his eyes" to fire only one shot that may not have struck Kristin. He also testified it was Lucas' idea to rob the Moss home and that he remembered "freezing up" when the shooting started.
Kammer has argued in appeals that his client should be granted clemency because doctors have now discovered he suffers from organic brain damage and a fetal alcohol disorder.
"What that means is he's someone for whom it is extra difficult to cope with the stress of a crisis like this," said Kammer. "He's not someone who is firing on all cylinders, and this is the result."
Suicide attempts on death row, while rare, do happen. Ohio inmate Lawrence Reynolds overdosed on an antidepressant in March hours before he was to be transferred to the state's death chamber. He recovered in a hospital and was executed a week later.
And Texas executed David Long in December 1999 after overdosing on prescribed antidepressants authorities believe he hoarded in his death row cell. Long's attorneys sought to postpone the execution, but a judge refused a reprieve, saying that because Long previously was judged competent to be executed, there was a presumption of competency.
If the execution is to move forward, a mental health evaluation of Rhode could be key. A 1986 Supreme Court ruling held that states cannot execute anyone deemed mentally insane, and a suicide attempt may prompt a new assessment, said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
"It's a fair thing for everyone to assess where this person's mental state is," he said. "And two days isn't that long to wait given what's at stake here."
Kammer said he'll ask physicians to inspect his client's physical condition as well.
"There's a real potential question as to whether the blood loss and medication they used to stabilize him are going to complicate the lethal injection protocols," he said.