Death Penalty

Lawyer for Black man on trial for murder referenced 'justifiable lynching' in trial note, petition says

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Image from the Jan. 30 habeas petition.

Updated: Racism pervaded the Texas murder trial of a Black man to such an extent that one of his lawyers appeared to suggest that he deserved to be lynched, according to a Jan. 30 habeas petition.

The defendant, John Lezell Balentine, was executed Wednesday, the Associated Press reports. A lawyer for Ballentine had sought a delay and a hearing on the racial-bias allegations.

Balentine was convicted in Amarillo, Texas, in 1999 for the murder of three white teenagers who had threatened to kill him because of his relationship with the white sister of one of the teens.

The habeas petition discusses the defense lawyer’s comments, as well as other racial factors that may have influenced the verdict.

The lynching reference was on a handwritten note passed between Balentine’s two attorneys during the death penalty phase of the trial, the Guardian reports. The note by one of the lawyers read, “Can you spell lynching?” The second lawyer inserted the word “justifiable” so the note read, “Can you spell justifiable lynching?”

Prosecutors had used their peremptory challenges to remove the only two potential Black jurors. Prosecutors justified the strikes based on the potential jurors’ answers to a question about the acquittal of former football player O.J. Simpson. The Black jurors had expressed doubts about Simpson’s guilt in the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend. But potential white jurors with similar doubts were not struck from the jury.

The petition also contends that the jury foreman was a racist bully who told fellow jurors that a death sentence was “biblically justified” and life in prison should not be an option.

The lead counsel seeking to block Balentine’s execution, Shawn Nolan, told the Guardian that jurors never heard mitigating evidence that included Balentine’s “horrific physical and sexual abuse as a child” and long-term brain damage.

“There was so much mitigation that never reached the jury, and the racism is just so pervasive,” Nolan told the Guardian before the execution. “A court needs to step in and put the brakes on this.”

Updated Feb. 9 at 10:15 a.m. to report that John Lezell Balentine was executed.

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