Execution Wednesday for killer of 3 in Amarillo

September 29, 2009 11:25:42 AM PDT
A broken car taillight tripped up a suspect in a triple slaying after he managed to elude police for six months. When John Balentine got pulled over in Houston in July 1998 and gave a traffic cop a false name, the alias was detected as one used by a man wanted in the shooting deaths of three teenage boys earlier that year in Amarillo, 600 miles to the northwest.

Balentine, who had a lengthy criminal record in his native Arkansas, was arrested and confessed. He was tried in Amarillo for capital murder, was convicted and sentenced to die.

Balentine, 40, was set for lethal injection Wednesday evening. He'd be the 19th prisoner executed this year in the nation's most active death penalty state.

Balentine was condemned for the January 1998 shooting deaths of Mark Caylor Jr., 17; Kai Brooke Geyer, 15; and Steven Watson, also 15. Caylor was the brother of Balentine's former girlfriend, and prosecutors said the shootings capped a feud between Caylor and Balentine.

Evidence showed all three victims were shot once in the head as they slept in a tiny house where Balentine also once lived.

In appeals to the courts, Balentine's attorneys argued his trial lawyers were deficient for failing to develop mitigating evidence to show his childhood of poverty, domestic violence and abuse. They also contended a pool of state-appointed appeals lawyers to represent death row inmates like Balentine in initial appeals included unqualified or deficient attorneys.

"The ability of a prisoner to obtain relief is wholly dependent upon the luck of the draw," Lydia Brandt, a Dallas-area lawyer representing Balentine, told the U.S. Supreme Court in her petition seeking a review of the case. "Mr. Balentine was one of the unlucky death-sentenced prisoners."

She said the claims never were raised earlier, and were blocked now in the lower state courts, because of a broken system.

"The state corrective process as a whole was ineffective," Brandt insisted.

Texas law provides for appointment of a lawyer in death penalty cases but "the provision does not create a right to complain" about the outcome of that legal representation, the Texas Attorney General's Office responded. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has refused to hold that an inmate's lawyer must be "constitutionally effective" and has declined to turn a "legislative act of grace" into a constitutional right, state attorneys added.

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, then said he learned later that Caylor was looking to kill him because he had "jumped on his sister." He slipped into the house and "shot Mark in the head and shot the other two in the head," he said.

"Mark had threatened my life, threatened my brother, girlfriend and the kids, waving a gun and talking about what he was going to do to me and whoever else come over there looking for me and stuff," he said.

He also said he didn't know the other two victims.

A neighbor heard a gunshot and called police. An officer responding spotted Balentine walking down a street. Balentine identified himself as John Lezell Smith, had no identification but a records check showed outstanding traffic warrants for Smith.

The officer handcuffed him and in a search found an unspent .32 caliber bullet in his pocket. A police supervisor told the officer since it was not illegal to be carrying a bullet, Balentine could be released.

Later that day, police were called to scene of the three homicides, 50 yards from where Balentine was questioned.

It would be six months before he was picked up in Houston.

Balentine, from Jackson County, Ark., northeast of Little Rock, had previous prison terms in his home state for burglary, kidnapping, assault and robbery.

"It was a strong circumstantial case," Randy Sherrod, one of Balentine's trial lawyers, recalled. "They found evidence that matched the bullet that was on him a very short time after the three kids were shot. The main thing I remember about that case is we raised enough questions with the prosecutors that they offered life sentence."

Balentine refused it, went to trial and got death. He declined to speak with reporters in the weeks preceding his scheduled punishment.

He's among at least seven Texas prisoners set to die over the next two months.

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