Oklahoma | I went inside death row, what I saw made me sick - Henry McLeish

The evolution of civilised behaviour, indicating a retreat from barbarism, has become a distinctive feature of most modern western democracies, but America often disappoints, retaining practices that shock, sadden, and in my case, nearly made me physically sick.
My visit to death row at McAlester State Penitentiary, Oklahoma, brought home to me, how the final setting for government sponsored killings, combined with execution by lethal injection, brought a brutal end to lives. And made a mockery of the idea of justice, offering instead a violent, humiliating, and inhuman act of revenge, with no serious pretence that any of these end of life dramas, provide any deterrence in criminal justice terms. Formerly known as “Indian Territory”, and home of the Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma, with a population of over 4 million, became a state in 1907. Located in America’s “Bible” belt, where there is a strong fundamentalist Christian tradition and powerful Republican politics, Oklahoma remains a pro…

Texas executes Justen Hall

Justen Grant Hall
El Paso convicted killer Justen Grant Hall was executed Wednesday evening for the strangulation murder of a woman in 2002.

Hall, 38, had been on Texas' death row since 2005 when he was sentenced to die after being convicted of capital murder in the strangulation of 29-year-old Melanie Ruth Billhartz in 2002.

The killing of Billhartz occurred while Hall was out on bond on another murder charge, the fatal shooting of a transgender woman that was labeled a hate crime.

Hall was a member of the white supremacist Aryan Circle gang and investigators had said that prejudice was a motive in the hate crime killing.

In October 2002, Hall strangled Billhartz to death with a black electrical cord and then buried her body in the New Mexico desert because he feared she would tell police about a methamphetamine cooking operation at a house in El Paso.

Another man had assaulted Billhartz during an argument and Hall and other gang members feared the meth operation would be discovered after Billhartz threatened to call police to report the assault.

Police had said Hall was the first person in El Paso to be charged with murder while out on bail on another murder charge.

Hall had been previously charged in fatal shooting of 28-year-old Arturo Diaz, who identified as a transgender woman.

On April 10, 2002, Diaz was found dead after being shot in the back off Anapra Road near Sunland Park, New Mexico, according to El Paso Times archives.

The two possibly met at a gay bar in Downtown El Paso, where Hall had been seen hanging around for some time before the killing, according to news archives.

Hall's indictment alleged he was motivated by prejudice over Diaz's sexual orientation, and the killing was classified as a hate crime.

Hall's bond in that murder was set at $75,000 by a municipal judge, and Hall paid $7,500 to get out of jail.

Hall was 21 years old at the time of Billhartz's killing on Oct. 28, 2002.

Hall had maintained his innocence and his lawyers filed appeals asking for DNA testing on the ligature on Billhartz's neck. His lawyers had also argued his confession was unreliable and prosecutors relied on contradictory witness testimony.

But at a March 2017 court hearing, Hall told a judge his request for DNA testing was a "stall tactic," the Associated Press reported.

"I killed Melanie, and I killed Arturo. And I accept the punishment for it, and I'm ready to get it over with, you know," said Hall, who stopped talking to his attorneys and asked that appeals be stopped.

Hall was the 19th inmate put to death this year in the U.S. and the eighth in Texas. Three more executions are scheduled in Texas this year.

7 other executions are scheduled in Texas through April.

Source: El Paso Times, Daniel Borunda, November 6, 2019

Texas executes Justen Hall for murder of woman in El Paso

Texas' death chamber
Hall told a trial judge he needed "to be put down" in 2016. Lawyers questioned his mental health and asked an El Paso court to delay the execution until Hall's competency can be evaluated.

Texas executed a 38-year-old man on Wednesday night for the 2002 slaying of a woman in El Paso.

Justen Hall was the 8th person executed in Texas in 2019. Just after 6 p.m., he was strapped to a gurney in the Huntsville execution chamber. Hall, identified in court documents as a district captain of a white nationalist gang, was convicted in the strangling of Melanie Billhartz in El Paso.

Billhartz's cousin, Cameron Rountree, along with Hall's mother and half-sister watched from the viewing room as Hall was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital at 6:13 p.m. He was pronounced dead at 6:32 p.m.

In his final statement, Hall said he wanted to address Billhartz's relatives and "apologize for the pain and suffering" he caused.

"And to my mom and Morelia I love you and I’m going to miss you all," he said. "I’m ready.”

Hall killed Billhartz while he out on bond from a previous murder charge, according to media reports. Newspaper articles identified that previous murder victim as Arlene Diaz. During a 2017 court hearing, Hall admitted to killing Diaz.

"And to the Diaz’s family that I had to put you through this, it should have never happened,” Hall said shortly before his death Wednesday, according to prison officials.

Hall's lawyers filed a motion last month asking an El Paso court to push back Hall's execution date until experts can evaluate his competency. The motion stated Hall refused contact with counsel for at least 2 years and argued that signaled a drastic decline in his already troubled mental state.

The Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas, where executions are carried out.Hall stated he was competent to represent himself — and two doctors agreed in 2017. He asked courts to waive his appeals and schedule an execution date.

"I do not like the person I have become, and I need to be put down like the rabid dog that I am," he wrote to a trial judge on Oct. 6, 2016.

But Hall's attorneys have questioned his competency, pointing to a history of delusion, paranoia and suicidal behavior. In January, a court ruled against reconsidering Hall's competency.

"Mr. Hall's campaign to drop all appeals and cut off all communication with his counsel for the past two and a half years further confirms that he is being driven by his paranoid delusions to seek to use the State's power to facilitate his own self-destruction," the attorneys wrote in their motion to an El Paso district court.

El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza said in a statement that Hall has confessed to two separate murders and "demonstrated that, if given the opportunity, he will commit acts of violence that constitute a continuing threat to society."

On Oct. 28, 2002, Billhartz and Ted Murgatroyd, an alleged gang prospect, got into an argument near a drug house, according to court documents. 

After Billhartz threatened to call the police — drawing authorities to the gang's meth lab — she disappeared with Hall in her truck. 

Murgatroyd said Hall came back hours later with Billhartz's body in the back of the cab, according to court records. Hall told Murgatroyd to get a shovel and machete to bury Billhartz. 

The 2 drove to New Mexico, where Hall told Murgatroyd to cut off the victim's fingers to prevent DNA from being found before dumping Billhartz's body, records state.

Weeks later, Murgatroyd led investigators to the body. Hall, then 21, was arrested later that day and confessed to the killing on Nov. 25, 2002.

He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2005.

In 2013, the Texas state defender's Office of Capital and Forensic Writs filed a motion asking for "touch" DNA testing on the electrical cord used to strangle Billhartz. Attorneys argued the new evidence could "show that someone other than [Hall] used the ligature to strangle the victim." They contended that Hall's confession "should be viewed in light of his mental state at the time" and alleged a lack of concrete evidence tying Hall to the crime scene.

The motion prompted a battle between Hall and his attorneys. In 2016, Hall filed 2 motions on his own to withdraw the state defenders’ DNA testing motion and to set an execution date.

"These walls 24/7 have broken me. It is taking every last ounce of will to even make it from day to day," Hall wrote.

Texas' death house
That December, he told the trial court he would not file any more appeals or motions, and that anything filed on his behalf "should be disregarded.

At a hearing the following spring, Hall's attorneys told the court their client had attempted suicide in November 2016 and that his psychiatric health was worsening. Hall said a test would reveal his DNA on the electrical cord, adding that he was competent to represent himself.

The trial court denied the DNA testing motion and ordered Hall to be reevaluated for competency. Two doctors determined Hall was competent enough to waive representation.

After his attorneys appealed the denial, Hall filed a declaration stating he wished to waive any further appeals and have his sentence carried out. He admitted his guilt and added that the DNA motion was a "stall tactic."

The Court of Criminal Appeals in January upheld the trial court's decision to deny DNA testing and ruled against reconsidering Hall's competency

Hall becomes  the 8th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Texas and the 566th overall since the state resumed capital punishment on Dec. 7, 1982.  

Hall becomes the 48th condemned inmate to be put to death since Greg Abbott became Texas Governor in 2015. 

Hall becomes the 19th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1,509th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977. 

Sources: The Texas Tribune & Rick Halperin, November 6, 2019

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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