Dallas man set to die for killing his young daughters while ‘their mother listened helplessly on the phone’

Battaglia called his father from jail to discuss the “chess game” of avoiding capital punishment.

By MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — Attorneys for a former Dallas accountant condemned for fatally shooting his two young daughters while their mother listened helplessly on the phone hoped a federal court would keep him from the Texas death chamber.

John David Battaglia was set for execution Thursday evening for the May 2001 slayings 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.

He’d be the nation’s third prisoner executed this year, all in Texas.

His lawyers had appeals before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, contending Battaglia, 62, was delusional and mentally incompetent for execution.

The Supreme Court has ruled 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 contend he doesn’t have that understanding and that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court, misapplied the Supreme Court’s guidance when it ruled Battaglia is competent. They also contended a federal judge improperly denied their requests for additional money to hire an expert to collect information about his competency, which has been the focus of prolonged appeals in his case.

State attorneys argued the Texas courts ensured proper legal standards were followed and he’d been provided expert help and a court hearing in accordance with Supreme Court precedents.

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 capital punishment. State Judge Robert Burns, who found him competent, said Battaglia’s intelligence and education — he has a master’s degree — shows he’s not a “typical inmate” and has the “motive and intellectual capability to maintain a deliberate ploy or ruse to avoid his execution.”

Evidence showed Battaglia became enraged over his estranged wife, Mary Jane Pearle, notifying police about his harassment and used the May 2, 2001, visit with their daughters to avenge his anger. Pearle left the girls with him for a planned dinner that evening. She later 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.

Evidence at his 2002 capital murder trial showed Battaglia at the time of the shootings 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.”