NASHVILLE – On Thursday, Tennessee is set to carry out the second-ever execution of a blind prisoner in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
The state’s highest court refused to push back the execution of Lee Hall, 53, who was convicted in the 1991 burning death of his estranged girlfriend Traci Crozier in Chattanooga.
Attorneys asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to intervene ahead of his death in order to allow an ongoing legal appeal to finish in appellate courts.
Hall is scheduled to die by electric chair, the first time a blind inmate would be executed by electrocution since the reinstatement of the death penalty. His attorneys say he lost his vision and became functionally blind in prison from improperly treated glaucoma.
Hall’s attorneys said extreme juror bias led to an unconstitutional trial after a woman failed to disclose a history of abuse that may have tainted her actions and decision making.
The high court denied the request on two fronts: Both that Hall’s case had a likelihood of succeeding on the merits of the case and that he had any legal basis to bring the appeal in the first place.
“Mr. Hall has failed to demonstrate that this Court should create a new, previously unrecognized procedure based on the facts of this case,” an order from the Supreme Court of Tennessee said.
Hall’s legal team denounced the court’s decision, decrying the fact that it bars the case from being heard by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, which could have the power to assess the possible constitutional violation.
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“This ruling is a rush to the electric chair. As a result of the Court’s haste, Tennessee may soon become the second state in history to execute a blind man,” a statement from the team said.
A lone justice dissented. Justice Sharon G. Lee voiced her support for the stay, but was outvoted by the other justices.
“Finality is well and good, but should not trump fairness and justice,” Lee 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.”
Tennessee Gov. declines to intervene
Hall’s attorneys set an appeal in motion after his current case was denied in Hamilton County Criminal Court last month.
The appellate timeline is so short, attorneys have said, because the testimony underlying the petition only surfaced in September.
New statements from a woman who served on the original jury, known only as Juror A, formed the basis of an appeal for a post-conviction relief hearing to determine whether she was so biased against him it violated his constitutional rights.
Juror A was a victim of domestic violence in her first marriage in the 1960s and 1970s. In a statement to defense investigators, she said testimony of Hall’s relationship with Crozier paralleled that marriage and brought up such strong memories of her first husband that she “hated” Hall and was “biased” against him.
Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole found that Juror A’s statements in court earlier this month did not support the claim of bias, even though Hall’s attorneys say her previous sworn testimony should be enough.
Hall’s attorneys contend there is enough evidence for the case to be successful on its merits, especially in light of a recent decision by the Court of Appeals in a similar case.
“The Court of Appeals overturned a conviction in a strikingly similar case involving undisclosed jury bias—just as it did on at least two prior occasions,” his team said.
Hubert Sexton, 47, was recently granted a new trial after a hearing before the Court of Criminal Appeals.
That court “held that a juror’s failure to disclose her relevant history of domestic violence violated the petitioner’s right to a fair and impartial jury,” Lee’s dissent stated.
“The denial of the right to an impartial jury is a structural constitutional error that compromises the integrity of the judicial process and cannot be treated as harmless error,” she said.
On Wednesday, Gov. Bill Lee also said he would not intervene in Hall’s scheduled execution.
“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. The judgment and sentence stand based on these rulings, and I will not intervene in this case,” Lee said in a statement.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow Mariah Timms on Twitter: @MariahTimms