This story was updated at 6:50 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, with more information.
A day before Lee Hall is to be put to death, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and Gov. Bill Lee both declined to stop or delay the Chattanooga man's execution to give the courts more time to consider a possible constitutional violation in his trial.
Hall's defense attorneys have embarked on a last-minute legal battle to overturn his conviction after they discovered information they say indicates a juror was biased at his trial. As part of that effort, the attorneys asked Lee and Tennessee's Supreme Court to delay the execution in order to give the courts time to examine the possible constitutional violation. They also filed motions in the Eastern District of Tennessee federal court in hopes of accomplishing the same thing, and those petitions were transferred to the Sixth Circuit.
"The justice system has extensively reviewed Lee Hall's case over the course of almost 30 years, including additional review and rulings by the Tennessee Supreme Court yesterday and today," reads a statement from Lee. "The judgment and sentence stand based on these rulings, and I will not intervene in this case."
The Sixth Circuit opinion came shortly after Lee's statement.
" ... the Supreme Court has told lower courts that '[l]ast-minute stays' of executions 'should be the extreme exception, not the norm,'" the court noted in its ruling. "We see no grounds for finding that Hall's case should be that rare exception. We deny his motion to remand, his request to file a second or successive petition, and his motion to stay his execution."
Hall's post-conviction defenders Kelly Gleason and Jonathan King, as well as Stephen Ferrell, who represents him at the federal level, did not immediately return a request for comment.
At the state level, the attorneys argued that due process "requires" Hall be allowed to at least fully argue his claims of juror bias. Due process is the constitutional principle that the government cannot deprive a citizen of life or liberty without first giving them the opportunity to be heard and defend themselves.
"Mr. Hall has not had the opportunity to fully investigate and present the merits of his claim because he has been forced to litigate under imminent threat of execution," his attorneys argued.
But the state Supreme Court disagreed. It ruled that, while the court has previously made decisions in cases that present issues that have not been addressed before, "due process makes no such demand in this case."
"Mr. Hall is unlikely to convince the appellate courts to otherwise grant relief on this issue," the court ruled.
A RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK
Hall, who has legally changed his name from Leroy Hall Jr., was convicted in the April 1991 burning death of his ex-girlfriend, Traci Crozier.
She had been so badly burned that "her hair was melted and skin was hanging from her arms," according to court documents. She was "alive, conscious, coherent, and alert" when her body experienced severe swelling.
"The only provocation or motive for this horrendous killing was [Hall's] anger with the victim for leaving him and refusing to return," court documents state.
Hall has requested to die by electrocution. Tennessee's primary method of execution is lethal injection, but inmates can choose electrocution if they were convicted of crimes before January 1999.
In the weeks leading up to his execution, Gleason and King filed three different petitions seeking to stop or delay it. The motions asked for a new trial based on claims of "constitutional violations" after a juror — identified only as "Juror A" — recently disclosed she'd had a history with domestic violence, including rape, prior to Hall's trial. Additionally, her experiences mirrored some aspects of Hall and Crozier's relationship.
Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston has vehemently opposed the petitions, noting the arguments are untimely and didn't meet standards set by state laws or precedents set by previous court rulings, and Tennessee law limits a petitioner to only one request for post-conviction relief. Hall tried to appeal his conviction in 1998. It was denied in 2004, three years before Juror A came to terms with her past abuse. Additionally, none of Hall's arguments fit the limited exceptions to reopen a closed petition.
Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole dismissed all three petitions for those reasons and added, "This court concludes the Petitioner has failed to establish Juror A was prejudiced against him at the time of the trial."
The state Supreme Court agreed with Poole, ruling that "the juror did not attempt to deceive the court or counsel and that any nondisclosure was unintentional."
Only one justice, Sharon Lee, submitted a dissenting opinion.
"Finality is well and good, but should not trump fairness and justice," the justice wrote. "The state should not electrocute Mr. Hall before giving him the opportunity for meaningful appellate review of the important constitutional issues asserted in his filings."
Gleason called the court's ruling "a rush to the electric chair" on Tuesday.
"Now that the state courts have slammed the courthouse doors, we hope the federal courts will address what Justice Lee described as Mr. Hall's 'compelling constitutional claims,'" Gleason wrote.
But the federal case also was shut down.
Hall had already tried unsuccessfully to appeal his conviction in district federal court in the past. He chose not to appeal to the Sixth Circuit at that time, and the petition was dismissed.
Because of the earlier attempt to appeal, Hall would have to seek a "second or successive" petition, meaning he would have to meet two requirements: show that a new constitutional law could apply retroactively or that the new facts can prove actual innocence and he made a genuine effort in learning those facts.
"Hall's juror-bias claim can meet neither of these two 'narrow exceptions' to the prohibition on second or successive filings," the Sixth Circuit ruled.
His claim doesn't bring up a new, retroactive law. And even if he could prove he exercised due diligence in finding the reportedly biased juror, "he cannot show that he is actually innocent," the court ruled.
"He does not dispute that he murdered Crozier," the court noted. "Even at trial, he acknowledged that he 'knew the victim was lying in the front seat crying when he threw the gas bomb into her car.'"
Since Hall couldn't show he's entitled to a second appeal, he is not entitled to an extension of time to pursue his appeals, the Sixth Circuit ruled.
Hall has since been placed on "death watch" in anticipation of his execution. Inmates on death watch are placed in a cell next to the execution chamber where they're under 24-hour surveillance.
He chose as his final meal a Philly cheesesteak, two orders of onion rings, a slice of cheesecake and a Pepsi.