Editor's note: This story has been updated with the news that John Battaglia's execution has been stayed.
On a May evening in 2001, a Dallas accountant shot and killed his two daughters, 6-year-old Liberty and 9-year-old Mary Faith, while their mother listened over the phone in shock. Now, on the day of his scheduled execution, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted him a stay.
John Battaglia’s latest appeal in federal court asked for a stay of execution and for counsel to be appointed to argue whether he is mentally competent to be executed under standards set by an earlier high court ruling. The state will not appeal the stay, according to the attorney general’s office.
"Battaglia effectively lacked counsel to prepare his claim of incompetency,” the court said in its ruling. "In our view, it would be improper to approve his execution before his newly appointed counsel has time to develop [this claim.] A stay is needed to make Battaglia’s right to counsel meaningful."
About a year and a half before he killed his daughters, Battaglia had beaten his wife, Mary Jean Pearle, during their divorce proceedings and was placed on probation for assault, according to an opinion issued by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. When the divorce was finalized, a protective order was issued prohibiting him from harassing Pearle and their daughters.
Around Easter 2001, Battaglia called Pearle, swearing at her and calling her names, court records show. She reported the call to the police, and a warrant was issued for his arrest for violating the order. He learned about the warrant on May 2, the day he killed his children.
That evening, Pearle dropped off Mary Faith and Liberty with their father for a dinner they had planned, according to the court documents. When Pearle arrived at a friend's house, she discovered she had a missed call from Battaglia. She called back, and he answered on speakerphone, telling 9-year-old Mary Faith to “ask her.”
“Mommy, why do you want Daddy to go to jail?" Mary Faith asked, according to her mother.
Pearle pleaded with Battaglia to stop, then heard her daughter say, “No, daddy, please don't, don't do it."
Next came the gunshots.
Police discovered the girls’ bodies in their father’s apartment, each with several gunshot wounds, the appeals court opinion said. Battaglia was arrested at a tattoo parlor later that night, after getting new tattoos representing his daughters; it took four officers to restrain him.
He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in April 2002. He has lived on Texas’ death row for almost 14 years.
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.
"His 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."
Michael Gross, who has also represented Battaglia, compared his letters to those of another Texas death row inmate, Scott Panetti. In one of Panetti’s appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an inmate cannot be executed unless they are mentally competent enough to understand that they are about to be killed and why.
“Some of the statements Battaglia made were fairly startling,” Gross said of his former client’s letters. “It doesn’t appear that he understands why he’s to be executed.”
With a stay and appointment of counsel, Gardner will make the case that Battaglia lacks the competency required to be executed.
“It will go back to district court,” Gardner said. “I will be appointed and get experts and be able to fully litigate the case.”
This was the first stay issued in Texas this year. There have been five executions in the state in 2016, and nine in the nation. Eight more are scheduled in Texas through August.