A judge has ordered a stay in the execution of convicted serial killer Robert Arguelles and ordered a mental competency evaluation.

Third District Court Judge Michael Burton signed the stay order Tuesday after defense attorney Edward K. Brass and the Department of Corrections questioned Arguelles' mental competency.

Arguelles, 41, was scheduled to be executed by firing squad June 27. He was sentenced to death in 1997 for the rapes and murders of four Utah women. Arguelles confessed to the crimes while serving time in the Utah State Prison for other offenses. From prison, he gave law enforcement information leading to the discovery of the bodies of Stephanie Blundell, Margo Bond, Lisa Martinez and Tuesday Roberts. Arguelles is believed to have killed the women in 1992 while he was on parole.

How and when his competency hearing will occur — and who will conduct it — is still undecided. State attorneys argued in court Wednesday that three doctors who conducted earlier evaluations be appointed again. Burton agreed in principle to do that but said he would not sign an order until the state worked out specific details.

Arguelles has been ruled competent by doctors twice, but recent observations by other inmates, attorneys and some prison staff indicate his mental health may have deteriorated, according to affidavits filed with Brass' motion and in the letter from DOC director Mike Chabries.

Utah law requires the Department of Corrections to report any concerns about an inmate's mental health to the courts. State prosecutors cannot object to such an evaluation.

Should Arguelles be ruled competent, the state could then seek a new death warrant. Under both federal and state law, if Arguelles is ruled incompetent, he cannot be executed until he is again found to be competent. In that scenario, he would likely be remanded to the state mental hospital and undergo periodic evaluations.

The state's position on Arguelles' competency seems a bit of an about-face. At the May 1 hearing when the state asked for the death warrant to be signed, both Assistant Attorney General Thomas Brunker and Assistant Salt Lake County District Attorney Kent Morgan argued that earlier competency evaluations of Arguelles were sufficient and that his erratic behavior was intended to disrupt court proceedings.

Brunker said Wednesday it could be two to three months before the latest mental evaluation could be completed.

As with his court appearance last month, Arguelles arrived in court Wednesday chained into a wheelchair and wearing a black net over his head to prevent him from spitting on others. He ignored any questions from the court, responding with profane rants, saying those in the courtroom were not real judges or lawyers. He again complained about illnesses and injuries he has allegedly suffered at the hands of his jailers and asked repeatedly for someone to contact attorneys from the Legal Defenders Association.

Brass, who does not officially represent Arguelles but who has long been tied to the case, appeared before Burton in court Wednesday to argue his motion that Arguelles has the right to counsel during a competency evaluation.

"It's pretty clear to me this is a person that cannot navigate through this rather complicated area without assistance," Brass said.

Burton then appointed Brass to serve as a "friend of the court" for Arguelles during a competency evaluation. As "friend of the court," Brass does not serve as Arguelles' attorney; rather, his role is to ensure that the court proceedings follow the law even if Arguelles objects.

In all previous court appearances through his case, Arguelles has declined almost all state-paid representation and offered his own defense. The Legal Defenders Association was initially appointed to defend Arguelles, but was later disqualified on the basis of a conflict of interest.

E-MAIL: jdobner@desnews.com