By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Texas convicted murderer John Balentine made the round trip of 100 miles from death row to the execution chamber and back last week, a journey most condemned inmates make one way.
Set to be executed on Wednesday shortly after 6 p.m. local time, Balentine was transported from his cell in Polunsky, Texas to the execution facility in Huntsville and placed in a small holding cell outside the death chamber.
Just after 5 p.m., he was informed that the U.S. Supreme Court had stayed his execution. He smiled but showed no other emotion, said Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
In 2011, Balentine was also one hour away from execution when he received a stay. A delay was granted less than 24 hours before Balentine was to die in 2009.
While three stays of execution for one person is unusual, some Americans say the slow grind of legal justice, sometimes followed by appeals that result in last-minute stays of execution, are cruel both to inmates and the families of their crime victims.
"Preparing for death is torture, and I cannot fathom having to go through it three times," said Randy Steidl, who served 12 years on death row in Illinois before being exonerated of murder and released in 2004. "That's inhuman, that is truly torture. That is not justice. If we are truly a civilized society as all of America claims to be, we should not do anything like this."
Efforts to contact Balentine through his lawyer for comment were not successful.
The U.S. Supreme Court suspended the death penalty through a 1972 decision then reinstated it in 1976. Since 1976, the number of executions in the United States has gradually declined to 43 in 2011 from a peak of 98 in 1999 because of concern about the possibility of killing an innocent person and the fairness of the system.
There have been 27 people put to death so far this year which suggests an end-year figure of around 40, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) said.
The increasing scrutiny of each case is resulting in more stays of execution. There have been 37 stays to date this year, which suggests an end-year figure around 55, compared with 41 in all of 2011, the information center said.
Fewer executions and more delays also mean longer periods between sentencing and execution. For those executed in 2010, the latest year available, the average time on death row was 14.8 years, the longest for any year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The average for all cases since reinstatement was 10.9 years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Gary Alvord in Florida, who according to the Florida Department of Corrections has awaited execution since 1974, is believed to be the nation's longest-serving death row inmate.
"This is a national phenomenon of the use of more caution regarding the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the DPIC, which opposes the death penalty.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has several times in recent years expressed concern about long delays in executions. He dissented from a decision in 2011 to allow the execution of Manuel Valle in Florida after 33 years on death row.
"I have little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death," Breyer wrote.
HARD ON FAMILIES OF VICTIMS
Supporters of the death penalty said the delays and stays of execution are also hard on the families of victims awaiting justice to be done.
Texas inmate Balentine was sentenced to death for the 1998 murders of three teen-agers who shared a home with him. The teens were all shot in the head, at close range, as they slept.
"My heart goes out to family members who, for the third time, have made the trip to Huntsville, only for at the last minute there to be a stay issued," said Randall Sims, the District Attorney in Amarillo who sent Balentine to Death Row.
Efforts to contact the families of the victims were unsuccessful.
But Mary Jane Peterson of suburban San Antonio, whose son was murdered in 1994, said criminal justice delays take a toll on victim's families.
"The murderers end up getting more victims from what happens to the families of the victims," she said. "This affects their health, their emotional status, their ability to work.
The Supreme Court halted the Texas execution last week to give it time to rule on arguments that Balentine had inadequate legal representation at his trial. They could eventually clear the way for a fourth attempt to execute him.
"I am hopeful that justice will finally, at some point, be done in this case," said prosecutor Sims.
(Additional reporting and writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)