Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Texas: Child killer John Battaglia is mentally unfit to be executed, psychologists say

John Battaglia
John Battaglia
John Battaglia, the former accountant who murdered his daughters while their mother listened helplessly on the phone in 2001, appeared in a Dallas County courtroom Monday as a judge considered whether he's mentally fit to be put to death.

Battaglia, 61, is set to be executed Dec. 7.

But first, a judge must rule on his competency. Under Texas law, an inmate cannot be executed if he does not understand why he's being executed or that execution is imminent.

Battaglia shot his daughters, 9-year-old Faith and 6-year-old Liberty, inside his Deep Ellum loft in 2001. He had arranged a call with his ex-wife, who listened on the phone as the older girl begged for mercy.

"No, Daddy! Don't do it!" Faith pleaded, before the phone line exploded with gunfire.

The act flung Battaglia into infamy as people in Dallas and around the nation struggled to comprehend why any father would shoot his children -- and then go get 2 roses tattooed on his arm in their memory. A Dallas County jury sentenced him to death in 2002.

Prosecutors believe Battaglia has enough understanding to go forward with the execution. Defense attorneys argue that his mental illness and "delusions" should spare him. His execution was first postponed in March to give the courts time to sort out this issue.

Battaglia wore square glasses and an orange-and-white striped jumpsuit during his court appearance Monday. He listened for much of the day, but occasionally laughed, whispered loudly to his lawyer or turned around to look at spectators in the gallery. At one point, he shouted out that it was all a "conspiracy."

3 psychologists testified that Battaglia suffers from delusional disorder, a mental illness characterized by having unshakable beliefs in things that aren't true. They disagreed on whether he has bipolar disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.

All testified that Battaglia is mentally incompetent for execution -- but for different reasons.

Dr. Diane M. Mosnik, a clinical psychologist who spent 16 hours with Battaglia to test and interview him for the defense, said Battaglia meets one criteria for competency: He knows he has an execution date scheduled. But she said he fails the second: he doesn't understand why he's being put to death.

Battaglia believes he's being executed not because he shot his children, but because of a conspiracy to "quiet him," one that involves everyone from the attorneys and judges in his case to religious figures, such as the pope, Mosnik said.

2 other psychologists -- Dr. Timothy Proctor, called by the state, and Dr. Thomas G. Allen, called by the court -- drew a distinction between a factual and rational understanding of the case.

Battaglia factually understands that he is on death row because he was convicted of killing his children, they said. But they also said he does not rationally understand that he murdered his daughters; his mental illness makes him believe he didn't do it.

That lack of "rational understanding" makes him incompetent to be put to death, the psychologists testified.

It will be up to the judge to interpret whether -- or how -- the "rational understanding" rule applies.

State District Judge Robert Burns pushed the psychologists for more information about whether Battaglia, an intelligent man who once passed the CPA exam, could be feigning mental illness to skirt the death penalty.

2 psychologists testified that Battaglia was not faking it.

Burns also questioned whether delusional thinking comes as a coping mechanism.

"If you personally committed a really heinous offense," he asked the state's psychologist, Proctor, "how would you not, at some point in the passage of time, create some kind of a delusional explanation for what you did?"

Proctor said the judge was "hitting the nail on the head of the fine distinction we're talking about." He said it's one thing if an inmate tells a story to make themselves feel better; it's another if he truly doesn't understand because mental illness has altered his reality.

Faith and Liberty's mother, Mary Jean Pearle, was in court for her ex-husband's hearing, but left without comment.

Battaglia's father -- also named John -- was also there. He said he hopes action will be taken to "cure" his son. "The last thing he would have done if he were sane is kill those 2 girls," he said of his granddaughters.

A ruling is not expected until at least Tuesday, when testimony continues. The judge could rule from the bench then, or wait to make a decision.

Source: Dallas Morning News, November 15, 2016

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