Ahead of a Thursday morning hearing, a Hamilton County Criminal Court judge has dismissed two of three petitions that could stop or delay the execution of a Chattanooga man convicted in the 1991 burning death of his estranged girlfriend.
Lee Hall, formerly known as Leroy Hall Jr., has been on death row for 26 years for burning Traci Crozier on April 17, 1991. The 53-year-old is set to be executed on Dec. 5, and he has requested to die by electrocution.
On Oct. 17, Hall's defense filed petitions seeking a new trial based on claims of "constitutional violations."
During a Nov. 4 hearing, the defense argued that one of the jurors during Hall's trial was biased. She had been a victim of "severe domestic violence, including rape," and allegedly admitted to hating Hall at the time, according to the petition.
The juror — identified only as "Juror A" — didn't disclose her experiences during the jury selection process. The proper questions were not asked, the defense claimed, noting they didn't believe she willfully concealed information.
And the information 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, the defense claimed. 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, her failure to disclose her experience with domestic violence denied Hall the right to a fair and impartial jury, his defense argued.
Hall's attorneys filed three different petitions that essentially would accomplish the same thing — stop or delay the execution — if they weren't dismissed.
In an order filed on Nov. 6, Criminal Court Judge Don Poole dismissed two of those petitions because the arguments didn't quite meet the standards set by state laws or precedents set by previous court rulings.
But in the third motion — a second petition for a new trial (Hall tried to appeal his conviction in 1998) — Poole declined to make a decision until after Thursday's hearing.
A petitioner is entitled to post-conviction relief if it can be established that any right guaranteed by the Constitution of Tennessee or the United States was abridged.
However, state law allows only one petition for post-conviction relief, and it must be filed within one year of conviction or appeal.
Hall's case is "clearly untimely," Poole wrote, as it's been more than two decades since he was convicted, and he has already tried to appeal his conviction.
"Under a strict reading" of [the law]," Poole said, Hall's petition would be dismissed. However, the Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that a petitioner may have the one-year rule waived on due process grounds, which is the idea that the government cannot deprive a citizen of property or liberty without first giving them the opportunity to be heard and defend themselves.
But "the threshold for triggering this form of relief is 'very high, lest the exceptions swallow the rule,'" the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in Bush v. State of Tennessee.
And the state appellate courts "have not yet examined a case in which a petitioner seeks to circumvent the statutory one-petition limit on due process grounds," Poole wrote. " ... A hearing is necessary to focus on the due process issue in greater detail."
The hearing will take place Thursday, and Poole set a deadline for any additional pleadings to be filed by Wednesday. He asked for the parties to be prepared to present evidence as to why the matter should either be dismissed or move forward, and for the parties to "be prepared to argue this issue at the hearing."
In a Nov. 12 pleading, Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston asked Poole to dismiss the motion for a new trial. He argues that Tennessee courts "have consistently found that [state law] allows for the filing of only a single petition" and that the petition was filed "well outside the statute of limitations."
Pinkston instead suggested that Hall pursue a request for clemency from Gov. Bill Lee.
Clemency, he states, is described by the U.S. Supreme Court as a "traditional remedy for claims 'based on new evidence, discovered too late in the day to file a new trial motion.'"