A federal judge halted the Nov. 19 execution of James Robertson, the Rock Hill man convicted of killing his parents with a claw hammer and baseball bat in 1997.
Judge Sol Blatt Jr. signed a stay of execution late Thursday on grounds that Robertson has a right to file a petition of habeas corpus in the federal courts, after the S.C. Supreme Court last week set a date for Robertson to die.
Robertson, now 36 and on death row at Lieber Correctional Facility in Columbia, was sentenced to death in 1999 after a trial in state court in York County.
He likely bought himself at least a few more years of life as the federal system reviews the case, legal experts say.
Robertson can appeal any ruling against him through the federal courts in South Carolina - first to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, then to the U.S. Supreme Court should he continue to lose.
"It is almost certain that a defendant who is ruled against would appeal the decision as far as he can," said Miller Shealy, a former federal prosecutor and an assistant law professor at the Charleston School of Law.
"And if for some reason the government lost, it would surely appeal. This could take years."
The murders stunned the Rock Hill community. James Robertson was the older of two sons of Springs textile executive Earl Robertson and his wife, Terry.
Robertson beat his mother to death with a hammer on the stairs of the family home, then attacked his father in the shower with the hammer and a baseball bat.
Prosecutors argued Robertson's greed for his parents' estate was the motive for the crime.
Robertson was caught in Philadelphia, Pa., soon after the grisly murders, after he fled by car to where his younger brother was going to college.
The trial in the gruesome case was broadcast on Court TV and even inspired a true-crime novel. Robertson's defense said he came from a dysfunctional family, was bi-polar, and was abused.
Tommy Pope, the former 16th Circuit solicitor who was elected to the General Assembly on Tuesday, prosecuted Robertson in 1999.
Robertson is "absolutely guilty," Pope said, and the latest court filing is another attempt to stretch the system to avoid the death penalty.
"The fact is that Jimmy Robertson, down there on death row, has nothing but time," Pope said.
The latest road block to Robertson's execution is "absolutely frustrating," said York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant, whose office investigated the murders.
The crime ranked among the most violent he has handled in more than 35 years in state and local law enforcement, Bryant said. Robertson was identified as the killer by overwhelming evidence in the case and a co-defendant who testified against him.
"These killings, by a son on his parents, were as awful as it gets," Bryant said Friday after learning that the execution scheduled in two weeks had been halted.
"I am at a loss for words. These cases go through the court system, and it seems like they never end."
Current 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett - who, with Pope, prosecuted Robertson - said there is "no doubt" Robertson is guilty in "one of the worst murder cases I have ever seen."
The federal claims Robertson might allege are "Robertson's only avenue left" to try to avoid death, Brackett said.
Very few claims of habeas corpus are successful, said Shealy, but death penalty cases are more frequently overturned than other cases.
The state Attorney General's Office, which has successfully fought Robertson's appeals for years, did not oppose the judge's halting the execution for a federal review because of federal law that guarantees Robertson's rights, according to court documents.
The judge's order, citing federal law, also appoints Robertson two lawyers to help him file a petition of claims by Jan. 8.
One of Robertson's newly appointed lawyers, Emily Paavola of Columbia's Death Penalty Resource & Defense Center, said Friday that the stay of execution gives her and lead counsel Keir Weyble time to review the case.
"This is a mechanism for the federal system to review any claims," Paavola said.
However, the lawyers were just assigned the case this week, Paavola said, and they have not determined what Robertson might claim in federal court.
Robertson has avoided the death chamber before with just weeks to spare.
In 2005, with execution scheduled within days, he filed a lawsuit against his defense lawyers in the 1999 trial, claiming they were ineffective.
After a civil trial and hearings that took years, Robertson's claims were denied in March 2008. Robertson appealed that decision, claiming his lawyers should not have called a defense social worker to testify during the penalty phase of the trial who had notes showing Robertson admitted the crime.
Last month, the S.C. Supreme Court declined to hear Robertson's appeal.