‘Can you spell lynching?’: Texas execution lawyer’s shocking memo

In April 1999, John Ballentine, a black man on trial for murder in Amarillo, Texas, appeared before an all-white jury as they decided whether he should live or die.

Should he be given a life sentence, in which case he will probably end up behind bars? Or should they send him to death row to await execution?

Ballentine had been convicted days earlier of killing three white teenagers who threatened to kill him because he was romantically involved with one of the teenagers’ white sisters—an interracial affair that was widely condemned in heavily isolated Amarillo. Now there was a sentencing phase where his fate was decided.

As the trial neared its climax, Balentin’s two lawyers shuffled the note between them. “Can you pronounce the word LYNCH?” one of them joked in his irritable handwriting.

Before returning the note, the second lawyer inserted the word: “Can you pronounce Justified LYNCH?”

The facsimile of the exchange is among 223 pages of evidence filed this week in a Texas criminal appeals court in a last-ditch effort to save Ballentine’s life. The prisoner was due to be executed by lethal injection next Wednesday, and while a local court ruled this week to have the death sentence revoked on procedural grounds, the state is pushing for judicial murder.

Along with the package of new evidence, Ballentine’s current legal team has filed a petition outlining numerous disturbing anomalies underlying his death sentence. The “justified lynching” memo written by his own lawyers, which the petition denounces as “bad faith” and “shattering in disgust for their client,” is just one example of the racial toxicity the lawyers say pervades the trial.

The petition does not claim that Ballentine is innocent. He also does not dispute the facts of his conviction: on January 21, 1998, he broke into the Amarillo home of 17-year-old Mark Keillor, 15-year-old Kai Brooke Geyer and 15-year-old Steven Watson and shot them with a .32 caliber pistol. gun while they were sleeping.

The story goes on

“This is not a detective,” said Sean Nolan, the lead lawyer who has filed an appeal against Ballentine’s upcoming execution. “But this is an outstanding case. We often see some racial animosity creeping into the system, but in this case it’s so obvious it’s really amazing.”

The racial conflict was present at the beginning of the grim sequence of events that brought the 54-year-old Balentin to the edge of the death chamber. The trigger was his relationship with Misty Keillor, a white woman, who incurred the racist wrath of her brother Mark.

The 17-year-old boy had a turbulent past. He was recently released from a juvenile camp after shooting at a house. Angered by his sister’s association with a black man, he acquired another firearm and told several acquaintances that he planned to use it.

The detectives found a note at the crime scene, in which Keylor wrote: “I go (so in the original) to kill a black man.” He added the number 187, hip-hop slang for “murder” under Section 187 of the California Penal Code.

Another brother, Chris Keillor, testified that shortly before the shooting, he pinned a piece of paper referring to the Ku Klux Klan to Ballentine’s front door.

“This case was racially motivated from the start,” Nolan said. “These people were harassing John because of race relations, and his lawyers at trial actually refused to present this evidence to the jury.”

Ballentine confessed to the murders shortly after he was arrested, and the Texas criminal justice machine started up. Here again, from the very beginning, there were issues of race and racial prejudice.

The trial attorney excluded the only two available African Americans from potential jurors, creating an all-white juror. When the prosecutor was told that the strikes were discriminatory and therefore illegal under the US constitution, he countered that he had based his decision on an innocent issue.

He asked potential jurors if they had any doubt that O.J. Simpson was guilty of the 1994 murders of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her boyfriend (Simpson was acquitted, though he was later found guilty in a civil trial)?

Both blacks said that yes, they had doubts about Simpson’s guilt, and therefore they were excluded from the jury. However, the prosecutor did not explain why he chose not to hit other potential jurors who were white and expressed exactly the same doubts.

When Nolan began digging into the case a few years ago as Balentin’s appellate attorney, he was dismayed to find a wealth of extenuating evidence that was never presented to the jury. In his opinion, such evidence would not justify the triple murders, but could place Balentin’s murderous behavior in an appropriate context.

“We found overwhelming evidence of John’s incredible poverty as a child, horrific physical and sexual abuse as a child, evidence that he suffered from long-term brain damage – none of which was presented to the jury because his lawyers did such a terrible job. . That’s why John ended up on death row.”

Nolan’s claim is supported by some jurors. Steve Fulton said in a September 2021 deposition: “I didn’t know Balentin was molested or beaten or anything like that. If I had known, I wouldn’t have voted to sentence him to death.”

Another juror, Tara Smith, who was ousted in June 2021, said she was saddened to learn years after the event that they did not know important information about Ballentine’s past. “It seems unfair not to hear things about John like the sexual abuse he endured, or the racism in his childhood, or the brain damage that leads to bad decisions.”

The bulk of the motion is reserved for discussion by Dori England, chairman of the jury. This account can be compared to Twelve Angry Men, a 1957 film that revolves around jury deliberations in a murder trial, but vice versa.

Like Juror Eight, the character played by Henry Fonda in Sidney Lumet’s famous film, England managed to influence the voices of several of his fellow jurors. However, unlike Juror Eight, he used his great power of persuasion not to spare the defendant, but to send him to death row.

According to the testimony of fellow jurors, England managed to persuade at least four of the 12 to change their vote from life imprisonment to the death penalty. The petition states explicitly that “the president of the jury was a racist who believed that he should be the one to make sure Mr. Balentin was killed, and to this end intimidated the jury, who thought a life sentence was appropriate, into changing their minds.” “.

The petition says that from a young age, growing up in Amarillo, England harbored racist tendencies. Among the evidence filed in a Texas appeals court is the testimony of Lola Perkins, who looked after England as his guardian when he was a teenager.

Perkins recalled a fight that England provoked at a school in the early 1970s when his high school in Amarillo was desegregated. She said “Dory started a fight because he didn’t like black people he called [the N-word]. He was racist towards black people because that’s how he was raised. That’s how a lot of us grew up in Amarillo when blacks and whites didn’t get along.”

England joined the Marine Corps. In a May 2021 official statement, just three weeks before his death, he said his combat experience influenced his position as petty officer at Balentine’s trial.

According to him, he insisted on Balentin’s execution because he was convinced that if the prisoner was ever released from custody, he would personally have to hunt down Balentin and kill him. “If I ever saw Balentin on the street, I would shoot him myself,” he said.

England continued: “I knew that if others chose life, he would have a chance to get parole, I would need to hunt him down. I’ve been in combat, I’ve come face to face with assassins, and I’ve killed more people than I can remember, so I knew what had to happen to keep people safe.”

Such a violent fantasy of hunting down Balentin and shooting him not only bore echoes of the “justified lynching” note exchanged between the defendant’s lawyers, but was also based on a delusion. At the time of Balentin’s trial, the earliest a prisoner was eligible for parole for life imprisonment was 40 years later, and even then his chances of being released were less than slim.

“Texas doesn’t parole people on murder cases, they just don’t do it,” Nolan said.

England described in his own words the extreme methods he used to intimidate fellow jurors into changing their vote. He recalled how, when 12 women and men first entered the deliberation room and started discussing the verdict, four of them opposed the death penalty.

“I am quite stubborn and quite aggressive. I don’t play well with others. I made it clear that we were chosen to solve this problem and that the death penalty is the only answer.”

He added: “I have made it clear that what we are doing has been biblically justified.”

England also recalled what he had done to one of the female jurors, who was so worried about the possibility of Balentin’s execution that she wrote a note saying she did not want to pass the death sentence. When England discovered the note, he did not arrange for it to be handed over to the judge, as the elders should.

“I tore it apart and it didn’t leave the room,” he said.

Fellow jurors from England, Tara Smith, also noted in her testimony that among the 12 people were opponents of the death penalty. death. The brigadier was a really strong personality,” she said.

England himself was aware of the impact his behavior had on the other jurors. After the verdict was handed down, the 12 jurors were approached by prosecutors and asked if they felt they were able to speak their mind in the jury room.

“He didn’t let us in!” exclaimed the female juror, pointing to the foreman. England recounted the story in his testimony, adding the ironic remark, “I’m a pretty tough person in that regard.”

With so much material pointing to Ballentine’s mistreatment at the sentencing stage of the trial, and so much evidence of racial animosity in the case, Nolan is left to ponder the state of the death penalty in Texas. In accordance with constitutional law, racial discrimination is prohibited from trial, and capital punishment should be provided only for the most heinous and cold-blooded crimes.

“It’s not the worst of the worst,” Nolan said. “His life was in jeopardy, there were so many leniency that never made it to the jury, and racism is so ubiquitous. The court must intervene and put an end to this.”

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