Texas Man Appeals Death Sentence, Claiming a Comedy Special Swayed a Jury and Landed Him on Death Row
A 17-minute interview.
A Texas man is asking the Supreme Court to overturn his murder conviction, believing that a comedy special influenced a jury and led to him being sentenced to death. Gabriel Hall, 29, murdered a Texas A&M professor and seriously injured his wife inside their home in 2011. He is awaiting execution by lethal injection.
This week, his legal team argued that the taping of a Comedy Central special inside the prison where Hall was being held violated his Constitutional rights. Read on to find out why, what an expert says about the case, and how likely it is the Supreme Court will consider the appeal this month.
On October 10, 2011, Hall entered the College Station home of 68-year-old Ed Shaar, a Navy veteran who suffered from Parkinson's disease, intending to burglarize it. He stabbed Shaar several times, then shot him at point-blank range, killing him. Hall attempted to shoot Shaar's 69-year-old wheelchair-bound wife, Linda, but the gun jammed. He stabbed her while she called 911 and pleaded for her life. Hall then fled; Linda survived and was able to describe Hall to the police. He was quickly arrested and indicted for the murder.
In 2015, while Hall was awaiting trial in the Brazos County Jail, comedian Jeff Ross filmed a Comedy Central special featuring maximum-security areas of the prison. Known as "the Roastmaster" for his brash, confrontational style, Ross interviewed several inmates, including Hall.
Ross's 17-minute conversation with Hall never aired—when the prison heard about its content, they asked the network not to broadcast it. But prosecutors subpoenaed the footage and presented it to a jury as evidence that Hall felt no remorse four years after the murder. The jury ultimately sentenced Hall to death.
After Hall was indicted for the murder, his appointed attorney sent the Brazos County sheriff a "no contact" letter specifying that Hall's lawyers had to provide written approval if officers wanted to talk with Hall. Today, Hall's legal team argues the Comedy Central taping was done without the knowledge of Hall's lawyer and violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
"The case is about when the state can interfere with the attorney-client relationship between an accused person and their counsel," Robert Owen, Hall's lead attorney, told The Washington Post. "No one has addressed this question of whether the state violates an accused person's right to counsel by giving a third party access to the defendant."
One of the exchanges between Hall and Ross went like this:
Ross to Hall: What are you in here for?
Hall: Ah …
Ross: Hacking somebody's computer?
Hall: Something like that, yes.
Another inmate: 'Hacking' being the operative word.
Hall: Yeah. Yeah, used a machete on someone's screen, so.
Hall's lawyers have called the video "highly prejudicial."
In their petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Hall's lawyers described the comic who interviewed Hall: "Ross rose to prominence in the 'comedy roast' format, which places a premium on the host's ability to deliver 'outrageous' jabs that provoke a subject into responding. He has been described as 'the new millennium Don Rickles.'"
According to Hall's petition, the video also included "hostile and dehumanizing statements about inmates and confinement generally." The case may be taken up by the Supreme Court in their Jan. 6 conference.
But the Supreme Court is unlikely to review the case because it involves one individual; the court prefers to take on cases that have wide-reaching legal impact, Fordham Law professor Bruce Green told the Post. "That said, I think it's pretty outrageous," said Green. "It would be pretty inappropriate for the prison authorities to allow a reporter without permission of Hall's lawyer. That's essentially what they did, but it was worse. It was an insult comic whose job it is to provoke people."