Michael Hall’s Pointless Execution

This article has been written by guest author Russell G. Murphy, Professor of Law, Suffolk University Law School

EXECUTION WATCH is an FM radio show out of KPFT 90.1 Houston, Texas.  Its unique character is that it only broadcasts on the day that the State of Texas executes a death row inmate.  On Tuesday, February 15, one of these inmates, Michael Wayne Hall, was put to death by lethal injection.  EXECUTION WATCH was live and on the air that night.  Outside of the show and its listeners, no one really paid any attention.  Yet, this execution illustrates much of what is wrong with the practice of capital punishment in the United States.

I was asked to appear on the February 15 program to talk about my book VOICES OF THE DEATH PENALTY DEBATE: A CITIZEN’S GUIDE TO CAPITAL PUNISHMENT (Vandeplas Publishing 2010).  One of the goals of the book, which describes the 2004 – 2005 New York hearings that resulted in the elimination of capital punishment in that state, was to promote a reasoned and unemotional conversation on the pros and cons of the death penalty.  The opposite happened to me during this program  – by the time the show, and my comments, ended, Michael Wayne Hall was dead.  I could not look at the facts of Hall’s case without condemning his execution.  The neutrality that characterizes VOICES was gone.  Here’s why.

In 1998, when Hall and his codefendant Neville (also executed  by Texas) killed their young victim, Amy Robinson,  Hall’s IQ was 67.  He had trouble reading the hands of a clock, could not make monetary change, and lacked numerous adaptive skills.  Hall’s contribution to the murder was shooting the victim with a pellet gun.  Even the prosecution’s expert at trial conceded that Hall was “borderline” mentally retarded.  On the other hand, the state’s evidence suggested that Hall could function in society.  Hall foolishly gave an interview to Fox News in which he appeared rational and articulate.  The interview was later shown during sentencing.  More than 10 years of appeals resulted in the conclusion that Hall was not mentally retarded.

U.S. Supreme Court case law prohibits the states from executing a mentally retarded killer.  (Atkins v. Virginia).  However, the Court left it up to each state to define mental retardation and apply it in individual cases.  The Court refused to review Hall’s case.  After studying the case, talking about it on EXECUTION WATCH, and considering it in the light of the Court’s rationale for immunizing the mentally retarded, I concluded that executing Michael Hall achieved nothing, whether or not he was technically mentally retarded.

None of the classic justifications or standards for a constitutional death penalty were met.   Hall’s execution can have little or no deterrent effect t on the universe of possible killers covered by his crime.  The mentally slow or retarded are unlikely to learn a lesson from Hall’s execution.  Unless its purpose was to frighten all citizens by its arbitrary character, his death was simply cruel.  It is true that Hall was permanently incapacitated by his death, but it is hard to see why society would not have been equally protected by keeping the inmate called “halfdeck” in prison for the rest of his life.  Societal retribution was not accomplished; the death penalty is restricted to the very “worst of the worst” killers and killings.  Without moral equivalency between society’s revenge and the murderer’s crime, retribution is not a proper basis for an execution.  Hall simply was not the worst of the worst.  While it is possible that the victim’s family experienced a sense of retribution, that alone seems a thin basis for the death penalty.  Finally, EXECUTION WATCH pointed out that it cost Texas at least $3 million more to execute Hall than it would have cost to keep him in prison forever.  The death penalty is never cheaper than life without parole.  Was it worth it in Hall’s case?

In the end, I could only conclude that, in Justice Stevens words, the lethal injection of Michael Wayne Hall was nothing more than “the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes.”