In the shadow of their client's impending death, Chattanoogan Lee Hall's attorneys are now asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to postpone his Dec. 5 execution to give time for the courts to examine a possible constitutional violation in his trial.
"This Court decides who lives and dies," the motion, filed early Friday, begins. "In wielding this power, the Court has the responsibility of considering matters of life or death with great care and attention."
Hall, who has changed his name from Leroy Hall Jr., was convicted in the April 1991 burning death of his ex-girlfriend, Traci Crozier. The 53-year-old has requested to die by electrocution.
His defense has 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.
Last month, post-conviction defenders Kelly Gleason and Jonathan King filed three different petitions that essentially would accomplish the same thing — stop or delay the execution — if they weren't dismissed. The motions ask 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. And her experiences mirrored some aspects of Hall and Crozier's relationship.
During a Nov. 14 hearing, Juror A explained she didn't disclose her history with domestic violence because she didn't think of herself as a victim at the time due to societal views on date rape and marital rape. She's only recently come to terms with her victimization while undergoing grief counseling after the death of her second husband in 2007.
Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston 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. Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole dismissed all three petitions for those reasons and because 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.)
Post-conviction relief is a common, last-resort method defendants can use to allege they were not adequately represented by their attorneys or they did not get a fair trial.
In his dismissal of the petition, Poole noted that only the Tennessee Supreme Court can decide whether due process requires a court to hear the case's arguments of the law and facts.
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.
Hall's defense has since filed notices of appeal and has asked Gov. Bill Lee to delay the execution.
In their latest filing — the one in the state Supreme Court — the attorneys argue that due process "requires" that Hall be allowed to at least fully argue his claims of juror bias.
"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 said.
The district attorney's office declined to comment Friday.
Going back to Poole's ruling that Tennessee law limits a petitioner to only one request for post-conviction relief: the law exists to prevent prisoners from continually filing "groundless" post-conviction petitions because of the cost it creates for the state. But in capital cases, Hall's defense argues, "the interest of the condemned weighs strongly against any interests of the State given that life, and not merely liberty, is at issue."
"Here, the biased juror claim is neither groundless nor fruitless — it is a structural constitutional error."
The attorneys point to an Oct. 7 declaration made by Juror A in which she claimed to have been biased against and hated Hall.
"Lee Hall reminded me of [my first husband]. He was a mean drunk as well and didn't want to let his girlfriend go. [My husband] did the same thing to me—he wouldn't let me leave and said he would find me and harass me and take our son away. He was always paranoid about what I was doing and calling my work constantly to check what I was doing and accusing me of cheating. [My husband] was such a bad drunk that he would leave our son in a car while he'd go drinking at his friend's house. In fact, I called police on him once when he was drunk driving," she wrote in the declaration. "All these memories flooded back to me during the trial. I could put myself in Traci [Crozier]'s shoes, given what happened to me. I hated Lee for what he did to that girl. It really triggered all the trauma I had gone through with [my first husband] and I was biased against Lee."
At the Nov. 14 hearing, however, Juror A backed away from her statement of bias, claiming she didn't recall saying that or putting it in the declaration. But when Hall's defense pressed her on the matter, she did agree that her declaration "contained nothing untrue."
Hall wouldn't be the first defendant to receive a new trial on the grounds that a juror was biased. Just on Monday, Tennessee's Court of Criminal Appeals granted Hubert Sexton Jr. a new trial because a juror didn't disclose she had a history with domestic violence. In 2014, a man named Robert Faulkner won a new trial for the same reason. And in 2012, Steven Rollins' conviction was overturned when a juror was found to have known the victim.
In those cases, however, the defendants learned of the juror bias claims in time to present them during their post-conviction petitions or appeals. But in Hall's case, the discovery didn't come until after Hall had exhausted his options for lawful appeals.
"If Mr. Hall is not allowed to litigate these claims simply because of when they were discovered, his right to equal protection will be violated" in violation of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, as well as Tennessee's Constitution, his defense argues.
"Imposing the death penalty on Mr. Hall but not Mr. Faulkner is arbitrary," they claim. "The only difference between [the cases] — is when the juror finally revealed the domestic abuse they suffered and where Mr. Faulkner and Mr. Hall were in the legal process at that time."