A man convicted of killing three teenagers as they slept in a Texas Panhandle home more than 25 years ago was executed Wednesday, the sixth inmate to be executed in the United States this year and the second in as long. many days.
John Balentine, 54, whose lawyers had argued his trial was clouded by racial bias, received a lethal injection at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, for the January 1998 shooting death of Edward Mark Caylor, 17, Kai Brooke Geyer, 15, and Steven Watson, 15, at a home in Amarillo. Prosecutors said all three were shot in the head in their sleep.
Balentine seemed jovial as witnesses entered the death chamber and asked if someone standing near the gurney could remove the sheet covering the lower two-thirds of his body "and massage my feet." Then she laughed.
After a brief prayer from a spiritual adviser who held Balentine's left foot in his right hand, the prisoner made a short statement thanking his friends for supporting him. He then turned his head to look through a window at seven relatives of his three murder victims and apologized.
"I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me," he said.
The mothers of each of the three victims were among the witnesses a few feet from him.
He took two breaths as the lethal dose of the powerful sedative pentobarbital began to flow through intravenous needles in his arms, snored twice, yawned, and began snoring loudly again. The snoring, 11 of them, became progressively quieter and then stopped.
At 6:36 p.m., 15 minutes after the drugs began, a doctor pronounced him dead. Witnesses for the victims high-fived each other before leaving the execution chamber. They refused to speak to reporters afterward.
Caylor's sister, who was among the witnesses who saw him die, was Balentine's ex-girlfriend, and prosecutors said the shootings stemmed from a dispute between Caylor and Balentine. Ballentine, however, argued that Caylor and others had threatened his life because of their interracial relationship. Balentine is black. All three victims were white.
Balentine confessed to the murders. One of his trial lawyers said Balentine rejected a plea deal that would have sentenced him to life in prison because the racist threats he received made him fear being attacked or killed while he was incarcerated.
The lawyers were following two legal strategies to save their client before he was executed. The first was to argue that his trial and sentence were tainted by racism. But Balentine was also among five Texas death row inmates who filed a lawsuit to stop the state's prison system from using what they say are expired and unsafe execution drugs. Although a civil court judge in Austin preliminarily agreed with the claims, the state's two main courts have now allowed three of the five inmates involved in the lawsuit to be executed. Robert Fratta, 65, was executed on January 10 and Wesley Ruiz, 43, on February 1.
Prison officials said the state's execution drug supply is safe.
Separately, Balentine's lawyers alleged that the foreman in his case, Dory England, held racist views and used racial slurs during his life and intimidated other jurors who wanted to sentence Balentine to life in prison into changing of opinion. Lola Perkins, who had been married to England's brother, told Balentine's lawyers that England "was racist against black people because that's how he was raised."
England, in a statement before his death in 2021, said he pushed for Balentine's death sentence because he was concerned that if the defendant were ever released, England itself "would need to hunt him down." However, England also said that she threatened to sue another juror in court for making biased comments when the person "started saying that this black guy was killing these white teenagers."
Balentine's lawyers also alleged that prosecutors prevented all potential black jurors from participating in the trial and that Balentine's trial attorneys referred to the sentencing process in a note as a "justifiable lynching."
Randall Sherrod, one of Balentine's trial attorneys, said Wednesday that he did not recall the note, but denied that he or the other attorney, James Durham Jr., had any racist attitudes toward Balentine. Durham died in 2006.
“I think he got a fair trial,” Sherrod said of Balentine. “I think we had a good jury. … We tried to help John in any way that we could.”
The US Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected an appeal by Balentine's lawyers to stop the execution so they could properly review his claims of racial bias.
A defense request for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to temporarily stay the execution also failed, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected a request to stay Ballentine's execution on allegations that "racism and racial issues permeated." his judgment. The appeals court denied the suspension on procedural grounds without reviewing the merits.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously refused to commute Balentine's death sentence to a lesser punishment or grant a 30-day reprieve.
"Without thorough judicial consideration of Mr. Balentine's claims, we cannot be confident that the death verdict is not tainted by racial bias," said Shawn Nolan, one of Balentine's attorneys.
Potter County District Attorney Randall Sims, whose jurisdiction includes Amarillo, where the murders occurred, had pushed for the execution to go ahead. On Monday he refused to comment before the execution.
Koda Shadix, the younger brother of Geyer, one of the victims, said in a video posted online last week that he was upset by efforts to delay justice.
Balentine “has shown no remorse and doesn't care at all about what he did. All he cares about is his life,” Shadix said.