A federal appeals court has stopped the scheduled lethal injection of a former accountant set to die for fatally shooting his two young daughters in Dallas 15 years ago while his ex-wife — their mother — was listening helplessly on the phone.
Attorneys for 60-year-old John David Battaglia argued he deserved a court-appointed attorney to investigate and a fair hearing to determine claims he may be mentally incompetent for execution.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, halting the punishment about seven hours before Battaglia could have been taken to the Texas death chamber Wednesday evening.
Howard Blackmon, the lead prosecutor on the case, said he was not surprised by the eleventh-hour ruling.
"I don't hold my breath on these execution days because there is still a bunch of legal maneuvering that's left that's available to the defense. This is part of the process. This is part of the system," he said.
Blackmon believes Battaglia will ultimately pay for his crimes with his life, but he said claims of mental incompetency must be thoroughly litigated.
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"Some people may view it as a bunch of gimmicks just to delay the ultimate sentence, but any issues need to be fully litigated so there's no questions," he said.
Battaglia was convicted of killing his 9- and 6-year-old daughters. Authorities said the slayings were revenge for their mother's complaints to Battaglia's parole officer that led to a warrant for his arrest. He was set for lethal injection Wednesday evening for the 2001 slayings.
His execution would have been the nation's 10th this year, and the sixth in Texas.
Texas attorneys said the last-day appeals are a fishing expedition and there's no evidence to show he's incompetent.
JD Rowell lived down the hall from Battaglia in the Adam Hats Lofts in Deep Ellum. He said he did not hear the shots that killed Battaglia's daughters.
"I didn't know what happened until my dad called me. I saw it on the news and that's when I opened my door and half of DPD is standing outside of it," Rowell said.
Rowell said he shared the elevator with Battaglia on a regular basis.
"He seemed like a normal guy," Rowell recalled.
Everything Rowell thought he knew about the father-of-two changed on May 2, 2011. Like the girls' mother, Rowell was expecting some closure Wednesday night.
"After 15 years it comes down to a last-minute decision by the court of appeals?" Rowell said. "This wasn't just closure for their family, it would have been closure for everyone else involved."
According to a statement from the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state will not appeal the stay of execution.
NBC 5's Cory Smith contributed to this report.