By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court halted the execution planned for Wednesday of a Texas a man who killed his two daughters at his Dallas apartment while the girls' mother listened on the phone, hearing the gunshots and her children's screams.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said a counsel for death row inmate, John Battaglia, 60, had abandoned him for part of his appeal process and the offender should have his execution halted as a result.
The move came hours before Battaglia was set to receive a lethal injection at the state's death chamber in Huntsville.
Battaglia's lawyers also launched last-minute appeals on other grounds, arguing he should be spared because he suffers from bipolar disorder, which was not properly considered in sentencing.
"Mr. Battaglia has presented evidence. . .that his delusions make him not understand the reasoning behind his execution," they said in a U.S. Supreme Court filing.
The appeals court also said an attorney who should have represented Battaglia in state mental competency hearings did not.
Battaglia had a history of beating women and been divorced from his wife, Mary Jean Pearl, for about a year when he fatally shot their two daughters, Mary Faith, 9 years old, and Liberty, 6, in May 2001, prosecutors said.
At the time of the shooting, Pearl was seeking to have him arrested for violating a protective order by threatening her.
When he had the children, he knew a warrant had been issued for his arrest, with an officer asking him to turn himself in peacefully so police did not have to take him into custody while he was with his daughters, court documents showed.
He left a message on his wife's phone. When she called back, he put the phone on speaker and demanded that his wife speak with daughter Mary Faith.
The daughter then asked: “Mommy, why do you want Daddy to go to jail?" and could be heard a few seconds later saying: “No, Daddy, please don’t, don’t do it.”
Then the mother heard gunshots and screams. Battaglia shouted an obscenity at her on the phone, the documents showed.
Pearl called 911 and police found the dead girls in Battaglia's apartment. Both had been shot multiple times.
After the shooting, Battaglia went to a bar with his girlfriend and was arrested shortly afterward at a tattoo parlor where he was getting rose tattoos to remember his daughters, the documents showed.
It took a jury about 20 minutes to convict him.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Peter Cooney and Alistair Bell)