If the execution happens as expected Thursday evening, Hall will be the second blind person put to death in the United States since the penalty was reinstated in 1976, his lawyers say. In their bid to spare his life, they cited his disability as a reason his sentence should be commuted, pointing to research suggesting that blind people are more sensitive to pain.
“Lee Hall is blind and vulnerable,” attorney Kathleen G. Morris wrote in a March 2018 filing in the Supreme Court of Tennessee. “If confined to prison for the remainder of his natural life, Mr. Hall bears no practical risk of harm to anyone. The spectacle of his execution — guiding him to the gurney — would ‘offend humanity.’ ”
The Supreme Court was apparently unmoved, deciding not to intervene. And on Wednesday, another door to commutation closed, when Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, also chose not to get involved. In a statement, he said the justice system “has extensively reviewed Lee Hall’s case over the course of almost 30 years."
With mere hours remaining before he would be strapped to the electric chair — an option offered to those convicted before 1999 — Hall spent Wednesday night on death watch. His attorneys turned their attention to the U.S. Supreme Court, calling the state court’s ruling “a rush to the electric chair.”
“Unless the federal courts intervene, Tennessee will become the first state in modern United States history to electrocute a blind man,” attorney Kelly Gleason said in a statement. “It is a sad day for justice in the state of Tennessee.”
The case represents a trend on death rows in the 29 states where capital punishment is legal. Prisoners condemned to die are getting older, and with age comes a decline in mental and physical health. By the time they reach the execution chamber, they may have already spent decades in decline.
“It presents the public with important moral questions,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Should the death penalty be carried out in circumstances in which execution doesn’t seem to advance the interests for which it was imposed? And are we the type of people who kill disabled, frail people who are completely incapacitated?”
Hall’s vision problems were decades away on April 16, 1991, the day his abuse of his former girlfriend, Traci Crozier, became fatal. A 22-year-old woman described by family as fun, easygoing and free-spirited, Crozier had just broken up with Hall, then 24. The couple had met in high school and lived together before Hall became abusive, Crozier’s sister Staci Wooten told the Tennessean.
After six years with Hall, Crozier moved out of the trailer they shared and into her family’s home in Chattanooga. Hall refused to leave her alone.
“I didn’t think he would actually kill her,” Wooten told the newspaper.
On the night of April 16, the estranged couple sat in her car arguing. Hall became enraged when Crozier laughed at him and refused to reconcile the relationship, the Tennessean reported. He got out of the vehicle, stuffed a paper towel into a gasoline container and lit the fuse. Then he threw it on his former girlfriend.
Not realizing the severity of her injuries, Crozier fretted about her hair. She arrived at a hospital with third-degree burns covering 90 percent of her body. Doctors called her injuries “the worst they’d ever seen,” according to the Tennessean. A little over a day after the attack, she was dead.
Hall has since expressed remorse for the crime, his attorneys say, sobbing uncontrollably when her injuries were described during the trial.
But Crozier’s family has been eager for Hall to be put to death, and his deteriorating vision hasn’t changed that. In 2014, Wooten told the Chattanooga Times Free Press she hoped he would be completely blind by his execution date.
“So that when that juice is going in his arm, he won’t even know when it is going to hit,” she said. “And he has to suffer while he sits there and wonders. The longer, the better. Traci had to suffer, and now he needs to suffer.”
In court papers, prosecutors have cited the family’s long wait for justice as a reason the execution should go forward. In a response to Hall’s request for a stay, they wrote earlier this week that the continued litigation subverts the family’s “entitlement to finality.”
Dunham said that at least one death sentence was commuted in part because of the inmate’s blindness. He argued that executions of people who are elderly, feeble or suffering medical ailments engender unease about capital punishment, already seeing declining support across the country.
“We have a sense that it is just wrong to kill somebody who is exceptionally vulnerable,” Dunham said, “regardless of what it is they may have done.”
In the modern era of the death penalty, the only other known execution of a blind person happened in 2006. Attorneys for Clarence Ray Allen pleaded with the California governor and the Supreme Court to allow him to serve the rest of his life in prison, saying that killing a 76-year-old man in his condition amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
Allen was legally blind and used a wheelchair. After suffering a heart attack in the months before his death, he asked authorities to allow him to die if he had another. They refused, saying he would be resuscitated to allow the execution to take place.
Four guards helped him to the gurney where he was executed via lethal injection.