Dallas man executed for killing daughters while mom listened

 
 
Updated 2/1/2018 10:14 PM
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  • This undated photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows John David Battaglia who is scheduled for execution Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, in Huntsville, Texas, for the May 2001 slayings of his two daughters. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP)

    This undated photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows John David Battaglia who is scheduled for execution Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, in Huntsville, Texas, for the May 2001 slayings of his two daughters. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP) Associated Press

HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- A former Dallas accountant condemned for fatally shooting his two young daughters while their mother listened helplessly on the phone was put to death Thursday night in Texas.

John David Battaglia received lethal injection for the May 2001 killings of his 9-year-old daughter, Faith, and her 6-year-old sister, Liberty. Battaglia and his wife had separated and the girls were killed at his Dallas apartment during a scheduled visit.

Battaglia's execution was the nation's third this year, all in Texas. The punishment was carried out after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals from his lawyers to review his case, contending the 62-year-old was delusional and mentally incompetent for execution.

Battaglia smiled as the mother of his slain children, Mary Jean Pearle, and other witnesses to his lethal injection walked into the death chamber viewing area.

Asked by the warden if he had a final statement, the inmate replied: "No," then changed his mind.

"Well, hi, Mary Jean," he said, looking and smiling at his ex-wife. "I'll see y'all later. Bye."

After that, he told the warden: "Go ahead, please."

Battaglia then closed his eyes and looked directly up. A few seconds later he opened his eyes and lifted his head. "Am I still alive?" he asked.

The powerful sedative pentobarbital began to take effect. "Oh, I feel it," he said. He gasped twice and started to snore. Within a few more seconds, all movement stopped.

The time of death: 9:40 p.m. CST - 22 minutes after the lethal dose began.

Pearle turned away from an execution-viewing window after Battaglia stopped breathing and walked to the back of the witness area.

"I've seen enough of him," she said before returning minutes later to watch as a physician examined Battaglia and pronounced him dead. Pearle declined to be interviewed afterward.

Earlier in the day, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an appeal that argued a lower court improperly refused Battaglia's lawyers money to hire an expert to further examine legal claims of his mental competency.

The Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners can be executed if they're aware the death penalty is to be carried out and have a rational understanding of why they're facing that punishment. Attorneys for Battaglia contended he didn't have that understanding and that the state's highest court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, misapplied the Supreme Court's guidance when it ruled that Battaglia was competent.

State attorneys said the Texas courts ensured proper legal standards were followed and that Battaglia had been provided expert help and a court hearing in accordance with Supreme Court precedents.

Another unsuccessful appeal challenged the effectiveness of the pentobarbital Texas uses as its execution drug. Attorneys contended the state's supply was outdated and Battaglia was at risk for unconstitutionally cruel punishment.

A state judge and the state appeals court described Battaglia as highly intelligent, competent, not mentally ill and faking mental illness to avoid execution.

Testimony at a hearing showed Battaglia used the prison library to research capital case rulings on mental competence and discussed with his father during a phone call from jail the "chess game" of avoiding execution. State Judge Robert Burns, who found him competent, said Battaglia's intelligence and education - he had a master's degree - showed he had the "motive and intellectual capability to maintain a deliberate ploy or ruse to avoid his execution."

According to prosecutors, Battaglia became enraged that Pearle, his estranged wife, notified police about his harassment of her and he used the visit with their daughters to act on his anger. Pearle, who had gone to dinner, returned a call from one of her daughters and heard Faith pleading with her father, who put the call on speakerphone.

"No, daddy, please don't, don't do it!" Faith begged.

Pearle yelled into the phone for the children to run, then heard gunshots.

"Merry ... Christmas," Battaglia told Pearle, the words of the holiday greeting derisively divided by an obscenity.

There were more gunshots. Pearle called 911.

At the time of the killings, Battaglia was on probation for a Christmas 1999 attack on Pearle. His profanity-laced Christmas greeting to Pearle was an apparent reference to that.

Faith was shot three times, Liberty five. Hours later, Battaglia was arrested outside at a tattoo shop where he had two large red roses inked on his left arm to commemorate his daughters. It took four officers to subdue him. A fully loaded revolver was found in his truck and more than a dozen firearms were recovered from his apartment.

Battaglia told The Dallas Morning News in 2014 his daughters were his "best little friends" and that he had photos of them displayed in his prison cell.

"I don't feel like I killed them," he said. "I am a little bit in the blank about what happened."

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