Late tonight at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, the federal government executed Orlando Hall, making him the eighth incarcerated person executed by the feds this year since Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to resume capital punishment last July (here are my thoughts on executing people who are guilty of harm). According to the Washington Post, (I know, we don’t believe in Jeff Bezos news, but alas this is my only source for this statistic) “The Justice Department has carried out more lethal injections in the past four months than the total number the federal government executed over the previous three decades.” Hall was the first person executed by a lame duck administration since Grover Cleveland’s authority in 1889. The execution was initially halted this afternoon by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan because, she wrote, “The court is deeply concerned that the government intends to proceed with a method of execution that this court and the Court of Appeals have found violates federal law.” The drug injected into Hall was illegally obtained by the U.S. government and gave off a drowning sensation. The D.C. Circuit ruled that the government’s methods are unlawful because the Bureau of Prisons is using the drug without the required prescription. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court vacated the stay of execution in a 6-3 decision and allowed the killing to move forward tonight in the midst of a raging pandemic. Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor dissented. Hall’s attorney, Robert Owen, was not present during the execution as he wanted to protect his health. He said, “It alternatively fills me with rage and despair that the government is being allowed to pretend as though the pandemic is over when it is not.”
(Trigger warning due to the following descriptions:) Hall was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering 16-year-old Lisa Rene in 1994 when he and Bruce Webster went to her family’s apartment to get revenge on her brothers over a botched drug deal. The men repeatedly assaulted Lisa, hit her with a shovel, and buried her alive in Arkansas’ Byrd Lake Park. Incidentally, the murder occurred just a few days before Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Crime Bill that Joe Biden himself wrote, which, according to Liliana Seguro of the Intercept, “Made 60 new offenses punishable by death. These included ‘kidnapping resulting in death,’ one of several felony murder crimes that made it easier to convict multiple people for one killing.” After Hall’s trial, one of the two prosecutors who handled the jury selection process was criticized by the Supreme Court itself for violating Constitutional provisions ensuring marginalized people are included in juries. Instead of holding the case in Pine Bluff, Arkansas where Hall’s harm occurred, the prosecutors called it in Fort Worth, depleting much of the Black population. 100 community members were called for jury duty, but the prosecutors struck everyone Black except for one person who staunchly supported the death penalty. According to anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean, “Four years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that this prosecutor had engaged in racial bias during jury selection in yet another case.” Segura included in her investigative report that the testimony of the witnesses during trial “Were at times contradictory; some of the statements made by witnesses to the FBI would change by the time they took the stand. Yet Hall’s lawyers were ill-prepared to cross-examine the witnesses, in part because their investigation had been rushed and incomplete.” After Hall’s original lawyers withdrew from his case, his new post-conviction attorney Kevin McNally explained how the trial lawyers did nothing to examine Hall’s personal background and how his trauma affected his actions later on in life. The trial lawyers also obtained a psychiatrist named Dr. James Grigson to do Hall’s evaluation even though he had examined and testified against over 100 men’s death penalty trials in Texas. When he was a child, Hall’s family lived in extreme poverty and household of violence and abuse from his dad. Hall’s father was an abusive alcoholic who often beat his mother in front of the children and locked the doors so she couldn’t leave in search of medical help. One of Hall’s sisters used to ask the neighbors to adopt her and she wrote in a letter, “To this day, if I hear a loud thump, I involuntarily start to panic,” referencing the beatings her mother suffered through. The children also had to fend for themselves after their parents got divorced and the electricity was shut off. It’s clear that the violence Hall’s family experienced led to his actions against Lisa in 1994. Shortly after Hall’s mother was asked to take the stand and beg for the jury to spare her son’s life, he was sentenced to death.
Despite the unfair trial (read more about it in Segura’s in depth article here), obvious racial bias in jury selection, and inadequate representation, Orlando Hall was injected and killed with poison tonight while his family and Lisa Rene’s loved ones looked on. What Hall did to Lisa can never be forgotten or glossed over as the harm he committed was horrific. However, the government should never ever be allowed to kill its citizens. Now there are two families grieving the loss of their family members in a truly devastating cycle of violence. I wonder if Hall had received proper mental health care and resources for drug use would he have done what he did to Lisa and I don’t think ‘yes’ is the right answer. Tonight I’m thinking about Lisa and Hall and all of the people who love(d) them and feeling immense grief. I hope we can eventually move past the violence of state sanctioned murder and discover new ways to heal those who have been harmed and those who’ve harmed.