Less than an hour after a judge decided yesterday that Jessica Hall had been punished enough for hurling a McDonald's cup full of ice at another driver, her family stood outside the jail, pacing near a white door on which a single word was written in black: RELEASE. It seemed more of a promise than a label.
Hall was supposed to walk through that door at that moment, was supposed to see her relatives excitedly waiting, was supposed to go home with them after spending nearly two months in jail. But she didn't, and because of yet another legal woe, the 25-year-old mother of three most likely won't be released until today.
Hall, who was convicted of maliciously throwing a missile into an occupied vehicle in what locals dubbed the McMissile case, was on the verge of release from the Rappahannock Regional Jail when an out-of-state warrant for her arrest popped up during a criminal record check. Murder? No. Assault? No. Hall was wanted in Hernando, Miss., for "insufficient funds," or writing bad checks in July 2005 for about $350, jail officials said. With court costs factored in, she owed $833.44.
"This is ridiculous," Hall's sister, LaJeanna Porter, said as she sat inside the Stafford County jail, waiting to hear why Hall wouldn't be leaving with them. "To go from one thing to another. We're just wondering why they waited until now to say something."
Jail officials said the warrant was filed Jan. 27. It was unclear whether Hall had written the checks or whether it was a case of identity theft, jail superintendent Joe Higgs said. Hall's purse had been stolen out of her car in nearby Memphis about the time the checks were written, and a police report confirmed it, Higgs said. At the same time, he said, the Hernando authorities said there was a photo linking Hall to the scene.
Jail officials initially said yesterday that Hall would have to be extradited to Mississippi, but they later said a deal was arranged in which Hall's parents could pay the fine and the warrant would be dismissed -- but not the charges.
Hall, who lives in Jacksonville, N.C., had been in jail since Jan. 4, when a Stafford jury found her guilty of the missile charge -- a felony -- after she threw the cup in anger into a car that had cut in front of her twice in stalled Interstate 95 traffic on her way to New York. No one was injured, but the jury sentenced Hall to two years in prison. Yesterday, Judge Frank Hoss Jr., who under state law can only affirm or decrease the jury's sentence, suspended all of the remaining two years pending five years' good behavior, saying the seven weeks Hall had served was enough.
"In my view, being a convicted felon and serving that time in jail is sufficient punishment," Hoss said.
"Thank you," Hall said, her voice shaky. "Thank you."
Moments earlier, Hall had told him that the experience had been a lesson for her.
"I'm just sorry. I don't know what to say. I apologize," she said.
Hall's case garnered national attention in the days before her sentencing, and about a dozen media outlets were represented in the courtroom. A few curious members of the public were there also, including several members of the Stafford County Branch of the NAACP, who quietly sat in a back row. President Bill Stephens said he received a call from a concerned person in Seattle, which spurred him to come. After the sentencing, he spoke softly, saying what many others had wondered about Hall's conviction: What if she had not been black, not financially struggling?
"I just kind of felt if it was someone else in a different situation, it wouldn't have happened like this," Stephens said. "The case shouldn't have gotten to this point."
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney George Elsasser argued during the trial and again yesterday that it wasn't what was thrown -- a disposable cup -- but the potential harm that it could have caused for the other driver. Pete Ballin, who was in the other car with his girlfriend, Eliza Fowle, was startled when the cup was thrown and stepped on the brakes, Elsasser said.
"It is a protective, proactive law," he said. "The alternative is a free-for-all out on the roads."
Commonwealth's Attorney Daniel M. Chichester's office released a statement after the sentencing, saying the jury's sentence sent the message that "if you endanger the traveling public, expect to be punished."
But Hall's public defender, Terence Patton, said he didn't believe that the case should have gone to a jury. A rock or a bullet as a missile, maybe, he said, but not a paper cup.
"We think it's outrageous that a paper cup would be considered a missile under these circumstances," he said.
He called Hall's parents, Jesse and Felicia Hall, to testify. Both said their daughter did not have a bad temperament, and that it has been difficult for them to care for the youngest two of her three children while she has been in jail.
Hall's husband, Cardell Carson, a corporal with the 2nd Marine Division, is serving in Iraq. Their home, on the military base at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C, has been empty since this ordeal began, Felicia Hall said.
Patton also submitted a letter that Fowle, who had received the bulk of the cup's contents, wrote on Hall's behalf.
She said that she stands by her decision to report the incident, believing that Hall's actions were potentially dangerous and certainly illegal, but that the punishment should fit the crime. She called the jury's sentence "excessive."
"Finally, while one can argue that incarceration may help to discourage others from this type of behavior, this would come at a very high price for Ms. Hall -- a price that in my opinion is too high," Fowle wrote. "Surely the publicity that this matter has already gotten should discourage any thoughtful person from following Ms. Hall's example."
When Hoss announced his decision, Hall was not the only one crying. Her family filled the third row of the courtroom. Porter wiped tears with one hand and held the hand of Hall's 6-year-old old daughter, Jania, with the other. Jania asked, "Is my mommy coming home?"
After the family was initially told it would take about three hours to release her, Hall's mom said jokingly: "It's easy in but hard out."
Just how hard it would be, she wouldn't know for a few hours more.
After family members waited in vain for Hall, jail officials took them inside the building and told them about the warrant.
"When we got in there, they pulled my wife and I in the back and we said, 'Here we go again,' " Jesse Hall said.