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Texas set to execute John Balentine for killing three teens in Amarillo

Jenevieve Robbins
Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Though he confessed to the murders, Balentine’s lawyers argue he might have been spared a death sentence if not for pervasive racial bias at his trial.

The state's highest criminal court Wednesday morning reinstated the execution of John Lezell Balentine scheduled for this evening, overruling a state district judge who had delayed it last week because his lawyers weren't given enough notice of the execution date.

Lawyers for Balentine, who was convicted of killing three teens in an Amarillo home, had also filed appeals raising questions about juror misconduct and racial prejudice at his trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed those efforts as well, according to his lawyers, leaving them to pursue a last-ditch appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court as the execution loomed.

Balentine, a 54-year-old Black man, was sentenced to death nearly 25 years ago for shooting three male teenagers, all white, in the head while they slept in a home Balentine had previously shared with his ex-girlfriend, according to court records.

One of the victims was his ex-girlfriend’s brother, who had disapproved of the couple’s interracial relationship and previously threatened Balentine in a dispute that grew racist. Balentine did not recognize the other two victims. A jury found Balentine guilty of capital murder in 1999.

Although Balentine confessed to the murders, his current lawyers have argued that racism “pervaded” the trial, leading jurors to hand down a death sentence rather than life in prison.

The execution date was set after a flurry of court filings and rulings and following years of appeals.

A state district judge in Potter County recalled the execution date and execution warrant last week after finding Balentine’s last-known lawyer was not properly notified of the warrant of execution and date in accordance with state code.

Prosecutors last Friday appealed to the CC, asking it to reinstate Wednesday’s execution date. With two judges dissenting, the CCA issued its opinion Wednesday morning reinstating the execution order and warrant.

The lower court's ruling conflated two parts of a state code article in question and "misstates the law," the judges wrote in the opinion.

Meanwhile, Balentine’s lawyers had also asked the court to stop the execution so they can file new appeals based on evidence they have unearthed concerning the jury’s decision to sentence him to death. The CCA also rejected the stay, according to Balentine’s lawyers who said they plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In their initial request, his lawyers say they have new evidence revealed about the jury foreperson’s long-held racist views. The foreperson, who used the N-word frequently and said he did not like Black people, believed that interracial relationships like the one Balentine had had with his ex-girlfriend were wrong, according to the application.

The foreperson also did not disclose violent incidents that would have disqualified him as a juror and later admitted he had intentionally withheld the information, according to the appeal. He also did not disclose that he had been both a victim of and witness to violent crimes, including being shot and sexually molested.

When the jury began deliberations, he refused to consider a life sentence for Balentine.

“I am pretty stubborn and pretty aggressive. I don’t play well with others,” the foreperson said in his sworn declaration, according to the application for post-conviction relief. “I made it clear that we were chosen to take care of this problem, and that the death penalty was the only answer. If we didn’t, I told them Balentine would do it again.”

One juror tried to send a note to the judge saying she did not want to sentence Balentine to death, but the foreperson ripped it up, according to the filing. At least four jurors expressed opposition to execution.

The filing also scrutinizes Balentine’s defense lawyers for racist attitudes and for disparaging their own client. In one handwritten note between two of the attorneys, one wrote, “Can you spell justifiable lynching?”

“We now know that the jury foreperson held racist views, lied about his background, and pressured other jurors to vote for death,” Shawn Nolan, one of Balentine’s current lawyers, said in a statement this week. “This kind of juror misconduct would be egregious in any case, but it is particularly damaging in a death penalty case already rife with racial issues.”

The latest execution date was scheduled in September after the Supreme Court did not take up the case in June.

Balentine, who has also asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbott to commute his sentence, is among a group of condemned inmates involved in an ongoing legal battle to stop the state prison system from extending the expiration dates of its execution drugs.

The practice, which the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has maintained for years due to fewer pharmacies producing execution drugs, violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, the inmates claim.