HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A former mechanic scheduled to die in Texas Wednesday evening for murdering his ex-girlfriend's brother and two other sleeping teenagers in 1998 was hoping the courts would intervene and delay his execution for a third time.
John Balentine, 43, had an appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a stay of execution because he contends his lawyers failed him at his trial and in his early appeals. If executed, Balentine would be the eighth person put to death this year in the nation's most active death penalty state.
Balentine's execution was called off the day before he was first slated to die in September 2009. Then last year, the Supreme Court halted his punishment an hour before it could have taken place.
Balentine already had a long criminal record in his native Arkansas when he was arrested in Houston six months after the bodies of three teenagers were found at a house in Amarillo in January 1998.
His guilt was not an issue in court appeals.
"It's pretty clear cut," Randall Sims, the Amarillo-based Potter County district attorney, said. "He just flat out executed three kids. I don't know of a better way to say it."
Balentine's lawyer, Lydia Brandt, argues that his legal help was deficient at his 1999 trial and in his early appeals. Lawyers failed to uncover evidence of Balentine's abusive and poor childhood that could have persuaded jurors to sentence him to life in prison, instead of death, Brandt contends.
In his early appeals, Brandt says Balentine's lawyers didn't question those aspects of his trial defense, and that the opportunity to do so has expired under court rules. She contends that a recent court ruling in an Arizona death penalty case should open the door for justices to stop Balentine's execution and allow for a review of his case.
In court filings, lawyers for the state dispute Brandt's arguments, saying Balentine's trial lawyers did find character witnesses but decided not to use them because they would have described Balentine as hostile. They also argue that the Arizona case can't be applied to Balentine's because capital case appeal procedures in Arizona differ greatly from those in Texas. They also note that justices rejected four previous petitions to review Balentine's case.
Earlier this week, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles refused a clemency petition from Balentine.
Balentine fatally shot Mark Caylor Jr., 17; Kai Brooke Geyer, 15; and Steven Watson. Caylor was the brother of Balentine's ex-girlfriend, and prosecutors said a feud between Caylor and Balentine led Balentine to kill the teens in the house where he once lived. All three were shot once in the head with a .32-caliber pistol as they slept.
In a tape-recorded statement to police played at his trial, Balentine said he moved out of the Amarillo house because of drug use there. Other evidence showed he was kicked out. He said he learned later that Caylor was looking to kill him because he had "jumped on his sister."
Asked why the shooting occurred, he said Caylor had threatened him, his brother and his girlfriend, "waving a gun and talking about what he was going to do to me."
He told police he snuck into the house through a crawl space under a closet, saw Caylor sleeping and fired but his gun jammed. He went outside, fired a test shot in an alley and climbed back into the house through a window he had left unlocked. He said he shot all three, including Geyer and Watson, whom he didn't know.
Balentine fled to New Mexico and was arrested months later in Houston, 600 miles southeast of Amarillo, where he was pulled over for driving a car with a broken tail light. He gave the traffic officer a false name that showed up as an alias for the suspect wanted in the Amarillo slayings.
Balentine, who grew up in Newport, Ark., had a lengthy record in his home state that included at least two prison stints and convictions for burglary, kidnapping, assault and robbery. When he was 15, records show he broke into a high school ROTC building and stole rifles and military fatigues.
Randy Sherrod, one of Balentine's trial lawyers, has said Balentine refused a plea bargain that included a life prison sentence, deciding death row and its isolation would be safer for him than the general prison population.
At least nine other Texas inmates have execution dates for the coming months, including two in September.