Dallas death sentences Ford v. Wainwright incompetency severe mental illness Tarrant County

North Texas death penalty case updates

Important decisions in two North Texas death penalty-related cases were announced last Friday: A State District Judge in Dallas determined that John Battaglia is mentally competent to be executed, while a Tarrant County jury imposed a new death sentence for the first time in more than two years.

Last Friday, November 18, 2016, State District Judge Robert Burns determined that John Battaglia is competent to be executed. Battaglia was scheduled to be put to death on March 30, 2016 for the 2001 murders of his two daughters, Faith and Liberty, ages 9 and 6, in Dallas County. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay just hours before his execution, however, in order to give his attorneys more time to develop claims their client may be mentally incompetent for execution. Battaglia is now 61 years old.

Despite hearing from three psychologists who evaluated Battaglia and testified he is not fit to be executed based on a delusional disorder, Judge Burns ruled that Battaglia has enough understanding of his case and his impending execution to remain on death row.

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.  Texas law now stipulates that a defendant is considered competent for execution if he understands why he’s been sentenced to die and that his execution is imminent.

John Battaglia is scheduled to be executed on December 7, 2016, the last lethal injection scheduled to take place in Texas this year.  December 7th is also the date on which the State of Texas resumed executions in 1982, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the death penalty.

Read more about the Battaglia case and the recent competency hearing from the Dallas Morning News.

Also on Friday, November 18, a Tarrant County jury sentenced Amos Wells III to death for the 2013 murders of his pregnant girlfriend Chanice Reed, 22; her mother, Annette Reed, 39; and her 10-year-old brother, Eddie McCuin, on July 1, 2013 in Fort Worth.  The jury reportedly deliberated for four hours before reaching a decision.

Read more about Wells in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

This is the third death sentence imposed in Texas this year and the first in Tarrant County since May 2014.  In 2015, a Tarrant County jury determined that mitigating factors warranted a sentence other than the death penalty for Gabriel Armandariz.

Tarrant County accounts for a total of 74 death sentences since 1976 and 38 executions (ranking fourth on both measures behind Harris, Dallas, and Bexar Counties).