Federal appeals court stays the execution of John Battaglia

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has granted a stay of execution to John Battaglia, who was scheduled to be put to death tonight for the 2001 murders of his two daughters, Faith and Liberty, ages 9 and 6, in Dallas County. Battaglia is now 60 years old.  His attorneys argued they needed more time to develop claims he may be mentally incompetent for execution.  The Texas Attorney General’s office will not appeal the court’s decision.  From the Texas Tribune:

During his trial, multiple forensic psychiatrists testified that Battaglia had bipolar disorder, according to court documents. Since he has been on death row, he has blamed his daughters’ deaths on different conspiracies, with theories ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to his ex-wife and the Dallas County district attorney.

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Ford v. Wainwright that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who does not understand the reason for, or the reality of, his or her punishment. The Ford decision left the determination of competency for execution up to each state, however, and it has not prevented the execution of scores of offenders diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illnesses.  The Texas Legislature did not establish a statute governing the process to determine competency to be executed until 1999.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which considers cases from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, has never found a death row inmate incompetent for execution. In a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Panetti vs. Quarterman, the justices ruled that “the Fifth Circuit’s incompetency standard is too restrictive to afford a prisoner Eighth Amendment protections.” At issue is the distinction between a prisoner’s “awareness” versus “rational understanding” of why she/he is to be executed.

As reported by the Tribune:

Battaglia’s “delusions and complete loss of reality prevent him from understanding the connection between his conduct and his pending execution,” his attorney, Greg Gardner, said in his latest filing. “Instead, Mr. Battaglia believes he will be executed for the actions of others, who conspired in impossible and sometimes undefined ways to falsely convict and execute him.”

According to Gardner, the case will go back to district court in Dallas and mental health experts will be retained to evaluate Battaglia’s competency.

Read more about the case and the stay of execution from the Texas Tribune.

The Death Penalty Information Center has posted the Fifth Circuit’s decision here.

The State of Texas has executed five people to date in 2016; there have been a total of nine executions nationwide.  This is the first scheduled execution in Texas to be stayed by the courts.  Last year, 12 individuals scheduled for execution received reprieves, including stays granted by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the withdrawal of execution dates.  None of those stays came from the Fifth Circuit.