Battaglia v. State

Decision Date20 September 2017
Docket NumberNO. AP-77,069,AP-77,069
Citation537 S.W.3d 57
Parties John David BATTAGLIA, Appellant v. The STATE of Texas
CourtTexas Court of Criminal Appeals

537 S.W.3d 57

John David BATTAGLIA, Appellant
The STATE of Texas

NO. AP-77,069

Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas.

DELIVERED: September 20, 2017

Michael Mowla, P.O. Box 868, Cedar Hill, TX 75106, for Appellant.

Christine Womble, Criminal District Attorney Assistant District Attorney, Dallas County, Texas State Bar No. 24035991, Frank Crowley Courts Bldg, 133 N. Riverfront Blvd., LB–19, Dallas, Texas 75207–4399, Stacey Soule, Austin, TX, for the State.


Richardson, J., delivered the opinion of the Court in which Keller, P.J., and Keasler, Hervey, Yeary, Newell, Keel, and Walker, JJ. joined.

In 2002, Appellant, John David Battaglia, was convicted and sentenced to death

537 S.W.3d 60

for shooting and killing his two young daughters in his apartment while they were talking to their mother on speaker phone. In 2016, shortly before his execution date, Battaglia filed a motion claiming that he "is incompetent to be executed."1 After an evidentiary hearing was held in November of 2016, the trial court found that Battaglia is competent to be executed.2 Although three mental health experts believed Battaglia to be incompetent, the trial court found most credible the fourth expert who concluded that Battaglia is competent to be executed. Battaglia appealed the trial court's decision to this Court. We stayed Battaglia's execution to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion. After a thorough review of the record, we affirm the trial court's decision finding Battaglia competent to be executed. The stay of execution is lifted, and the case is remanded to the trial court to set Battaglia's execution date.


A. The Murders

John Battaglia was married to his second wife, Mary Jean Pearl, for nine years. They had two daughters—Faith and Liberty. The couple separated in 1999 and divorced in 2000. According to Mary Jean, Battaglia had been verbally abusive toward her during their entire nine-year marriage. When Mary Jean testified at Battaglia's trial, she described one Christmas morning after the divorce. Battaglia and his daughter from a previous marriage, Kristy, came to Mary Jean's house to pick up Faith and Liberty for church. Battaglia and Mary Jean argued, and in his anger Battaglia physically assaulted Mary Jean in front of the three girls. She described how he "pounded" on her, pulled her hair, pushed her to the floor and kicked her, all while the girls were crying and begging him to stop. He left her house, and she called 911. Mary Jean was black and blue behind her head and she had a puncture wound in her heel and bruises on her arm, finger, shin, and both sides of her head. Battaglia was convicted of assault and placed on probation.

The following Easter, Mary Jean gave Kristy an Easter gift of $50. Mary Jean said that her gift to Kristy prompted Battaglia to leave a message on the answering machine that Mary Jean had set up in the girls' room: "Mary Jean, the next time you give my daughter $50 why don't you tell her how you screwed her out of her college fund, you fucking pig. How does that feel, pig?" Mary Jean reported receiving that message to the police and to Battaglia's probation officer. A warrant was then issued for Battaglia's arrest for violating his probation. On May 2, 2001, a police officer told him that he needed to make arrangements to turn himself in.

That evening, Battaglia had a regular dinner visit with Faith and Liberty. Mary Jean said that she drove the two girls to

537 S.W.3d 61

Highland Park Village parking lot in Dallas where Battaglia picked them up. She said she waited to see that the girls were safely in his car, and then she drove to her friend Melissa's house. Battaglia was supposed to bring the girls back to Melissa's house after dinner. Mary Jean testified that, as she pulled into Melissa's driveway, her mother called her cell phone to tell her that Battaglia had called because the girls wanted to ask Mary Jean something. So Mary Jean went into Melissa's house and called Battaglia's number. Battaglia answered, then put the phone on speaker mode, and instructed Faith to "ask her." Mary Jean then heard Faith ask, "Mommy, why do you want Daddy to go to jail?" Then Mary Jean heard Faith say, "No, Daddy, please don't, don't do it." Mary Jean yelled into the phone, "Run, run for the door!" She heard gunshots and her daughters' screams. She then heard Battaglia yell "Merry Fucking Christmas!" Mary Jean called 911 and drove to Battaglia's apartment. He had already left. The police discovered the girls' bodies in Battaglia's apartment. Nine-year-old Faith was found by the kitchen phone with three gunshot wounds, and six-year-old Liberty was found ten to fifteen feet from the front door with four gunshot wounds and a graze wound to the top of her head. Later that night, Battaglia was arrested outside a tattoo parlor where he had gone with his girlfriend. It took four officers to restrain and handcuff him.

Mary Jean testified that the day after the murders she went to her house to retrieve the answering machine from the girls' bedroom. The message left on the girls' answering machine was from Battaglia:

Good night my little babies. I hope you're resting in a different place. I love you. I wish that you had nothing to do with your mother. She was evil, vicious, stupid. You will be free of her. I love you very dearly. You were very brave girls. Very brave. Liberty, you were oh so brave. I love you so much. Bye.

B. The Procedural Background

After the State presented its case-in-chief, the defense chose to not call any witnesses. In fact, Battaglia took the stand and testified that he agreed with his attorney's strategy to rest his case at that time. The closing argument presented by defense counsel did not articulate any type of defense to the crime, and counsel emphasized that this was not a case of insanity:3 "Certainly, there was no evidence brought to you of any type of insanity."

The jury found Battaglia guilty of capital murder. During the punishment phase, the defense presented the testimony of a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Judy Stonedale, who testified that Battaglia had suffered from bipolar disorder since his mid-to-late twenties. She said that some people with bipolar disorder have psychotic episodes and lose touch with reality. She testified that bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance and Battaglia knew what he was doing, but that he was experiencing a psychotic episode at the time he killed his daughters. The defense also called Dr. Edward Gripon, a forensic psychiatrist who had been appointed by the trial court to evaluate Battaglia. Dr. Gripon also testified that Battaglia had bipolar disorder. At the time he murdered his children, however, Battaglia knew what he was doing and knew that it was wrong.

537 S.W.3d 62

Forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Richard E. Coons, testified for the State on rebuttal. Dr. Coons concluded that Battaglia killed his children as an act of anger and retribution to punish Mary Jean. He believed that Battaglia had a mild form of bipolar disorder, but that he also had antisocial personality disorder such that he rationalized and blamed others for his actions. Dr. Coons testified that Battaglia had told him that "all [he] wanted to do was to get the girls out of trouble, so they wouldn't be drug addicts, strippers, hate their parents, or be prostitutes." Dr. Coons believed Battaglia was rationalizing why he killed his two daughters.

The defense called a rebuttal witness, Dr. Jay Douglas Crowder, who testified that Battaglia had "immature personality disorder." Dr. Crowder said that Battaglia's mental illness was a contributing factor in his commission of the offense and that he would not have committed the murders had he been on mood-stabilizing medication at the time. Dr. Crowder admitted, however, that when Battaglia killed his children, "he made a decision to do it and he knew the wrongfulness of his actions." Battaglia took the stand again at the conclusion of the punishment phase of the trial and said that he did not wish to testify, but that it was his intention to rest on the issue of punishment. During the punishment phase closing argument, Battaglia's counsel stated that the defense "never inferred to anybody that there was an issue in this case about the guilt or innocence of John Battaglia. Never tried to raise that issue." And at that time, he reiterated that insanity "was never an issue in this case." It was clear that the defense strategy was to take responsibility for having committed the offense, but avoid the death penalty by arguing that Battaglia was mentally ill: "John Battaglia is acting and suffering from a mental illness," and he should not be executed because he was "in the throws [sic ] of a severe mental illness" when he killed his daughters.

Battaglia was sentenced to death. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal to this Court.4 Most of the issues raised on direct appeal asserted errors related to the punishment phase of the trial. Battaglia did, however, raise an issue complaining of the admission of extraneous-act evidence at the guilt phase. The State's theory of the case was that...

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    ...charged, the actor, as a result of severe mental disease or defect, did not know that his conduct was wrong." Battaglia v. State , 537 S.W.3d 57, 61 n.3 (Tex. Crim. App. 2017), cert. denied , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S. Ct. 943, 200 L.Ed.2d 216 (2018). Petitioner offered the state habeas court no......
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