Death Watch: Matters of Incompetence

How smart must one be to stand for execution? In Texas, not that smart.

As of press time, Dallas County District Judge Robert Burns was still considering the merits of an appeal argued Monday, Nov. 14, by attorneys for death row inmate John Bat­taglia, who believe their client is mentally incompetent for execution. Battaglia is currently scheduled for the state's death gurney on Wednesday, Dec. 7. State law prohibits the execution of inmates who either do not understand why they're being executed or cannot comprehend that their execution is imminent.

The 61-year-old was originally sentenced to death in 2002 after he was found guilty of murdering his two daughters, 9-year-old Faith and 6-year-old Liberty, in a particularly grisly manner – shooting them both in his downtown Dallas loft while on the phone with their mother, his ex-wife, Mary Jean Pearle. (After the murders, Battaglia went to a tattoo parlor to get two roses tattooed onto his arm, one for each daughter. He was arrested that day outside the parlor.) Prosecutors were able to establish a pattern of violence from Battaglia, mostly directed toward his ex-wives, Pearle and first wife Michelle Ghetti. A jury rejected defense attorney arguments that their client was mentally unstable.

Battaglia was originally slated for execution in late March, but had his execution stayed just hours before he hit the gurney when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay and ordered the state court to reconsider Battaglia's claims of mental incompetence. "Battaglia effectively lacked counsel to prepare his claim of incompetency," the appeals court stated in its ruling. "In our view, it would be improper to approve his execution before his newly appointed counsel has time to develop his Ford claim" – a reference to the 1974 case out of Florida that spared Alvin Ford's life. The Dallas Morning News reports that three psychologists testified on Battag­lia's behalf on Nov. 14 that the inmate suffers from delusional disorder.

Bobby Moore Goes to Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in the case of Bobby James Moore, a 57-year-old from Houston who was sentenced to death in 1981 for the capital murder of 72-year-old supermarket clerk James McCarble. Moore's attorneys have argued that he, too, is too incompetent for execution – something that Moore's attorneys weren't able to challenge during his trial 35 years ago. (Intellectual incompetence did not become an issue that could bar someone from execution until Atkins v. Virginia in 2002.) Lawyers for Moore, according to press outlets who attended the hearing, argued that Texas' standard for assessing adaptive behaviors are "non-clinical" and "anti-scientific." Attor­ney Clifford Sloan suggested that the state's application of the Supreme Court's intellectual disability standard is "very extreme and stands alone." No ruling is expected to come down until mid-2017.

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Death Watch, John Battaglia, Bobby James Moore

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