"Newly discovered evidence" could stop or at least delay the December execution of a Chattanooga man convicted in the 1991 burning death of his estranged girlfriend.
Leroy Hall Jr., 53, has been on death row for 26 years for burning Traci Crozier on April 17, 1991.
On that day, he filled a container with gas, stuffed a paper towel in the top, lit the fuse and threw it on Crozier as she sat in her car. It exploded, leaving her with second- and third-degree burns over 90% of her body. She died the next day.
In 1992, Hall was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. His execution date is Dec. 5.
On Monday, Hall's defense argued in Hamilton County Criminal Court that one of the jurors during his trial was biased, referring to a woman who allegedly admitted to hatred of Hall at the time.
The juror, who is identified only as "Juror A," had been a victim of "severe domestic violence, including rape," a petition filed on Oct. 17 states.
She failed to disclose her experiences during the jury selection process, something Hall's defense argues denied him the right to a fair and impartial jury.
The juror only recently revealed that "her own victimization biased her against Mr. Hall," the petition states.
But the defense doesn't wholly place blame on the juror, and they don't believe she willfully concealed information.
The proper questions were not asked, they claim. She was asked if she had ever been the victim of a crime and, technically, she was correct in denying that, as she did not report the incidents to police, meaning no criminal charges were filed.
Additionally, Hall's attorneys explain the new evidence couldn't have come to light sooner because the juror was "traumatized" by her experience and "did not openly discuss" the incidents until very recently. In fact, they say, she still has not disclosed the events to her family, which is why the attorneys have requested to file certain documents under seal.
Nevertheless, the defense argues "Juror A's service on Mr. Hall's capital jury is the greatest magnitude of constitutional violation — a structural error — which requires that Mr. Hall's convictions and sentence be vacated."
Prosecutors, however, disagreed.
In response, Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston asked Criminal Court Judge Don Poole to dismiss their two petitions without a hearing because they failed to make a compelling argument.
Pinkston argues that there are only limited circumstances in which a motion to reopen a petition to vacate a conviction could be granted, one of which requires an appellate court to decide.
As for a petition to review judgment, Pinkston claims the juror's recently disclosed bias does not qualify as relevant "newly discovered evidence" under state law.
It doesn't relate to what was argued at trial because what was argued at trial was Hall's "actions at the time of the murder."
"Neither Juror A's claimed domestic abuse and bias, nor evidence of whether she disclosed those, had any relation to [the killing]," Pinkston states.
The evidence also would have not been admissible at trial, he claims. It could have been admissible in a motion for a new trial, but the law states any new evidence would have to be entered at the original trial.
Additionally, Pinkston argues that Hall did not show enough diligence in learning the juror's bias.
"[Hall] does not make any claim that he contacted Juror A, or even attempted to contact Juror A, for the first 22 years after his trial, from 1992 to 2014," Pinkston writes. And "since no member of [Hall's] legal team contacted Juror A for the previous 22 years, it is not possible to know whether she would have been unwilling, if asked, to make a disclosure to them."
But one of Hall's attorneys, Jonathan King, clarified in court on Monday that the team did indeed try to talk to all surviving jurors during Hall's post-conviction proceedings from 1998 to 2005. The team had been unable to locate Juror A.
When they did find her in 2014 while working on the state's motion to set an execution date, she did not disclose her past victimization.
Ultimately, it will be up to Criminal Court Judge Don Poole to decide whether there will be a hearing. But "with time being of the essence," he set the tentative date of Nov. 14.
In the meantime, Poole will issue an order in response to the arguments posed by the defense and prosecution. If he doesn't deny Hall's petitions, the hearing will take place 10 days from Monday's hearing.
"This is a matter of extreme importance," he said, noting that it is vital to make "sure everything is done right when somebody is about to be put to death."
Crozier's sister, Staci Wooten, was in court Monday. She said she hopes Hall doesn't get a hearing.
The long appeals process has been very upsetting for her, she said.
"I'm the only voice for Traci in my family now," she said. "It's been real bad having to know he's alive and getting to choose everything he wants and to do all of these appeals like he didn't do anything ... and now he wants to — I don't know what he wants. I guess he just doesn't want to be executed. But he executed her and she had no choice."
Crozier was a fun, loving, young woman, Wooten said.
"She was 22 years old, living her life. She was going to college, she was working, she was taking care of him. She was just a wonderful, wonderful person."
Wooten said the only thing that will bring her and her family peace is knowing Hall has been executed.
"And me sitting there watching him be executed because I had to watch my sister die," she said.
Hall, who is incarcerated at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, was not at Monday's status hearing due of health complications, Poole noted.
"From now until December 5th, I'm just gonna be walking on eggshells, hoping that nothing goes wrong and that he is executed," Wooten said.
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