Criminal Justice

Appeals court upholds admission of inmate's Comedy Central interview at his death penalty trial

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A trial judge didn’t err by admitting footage of an inmate’s conversation with a Comedy Central comedian during the penalty phase of the inmate’s murder trial, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled last week.

In a Dec. 8 opinion, the top Texas court for criminal cases rejected arguments by Gabriel Paul Hall that the video violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel, was irrelevant to punishment phase issues, and created a danger of unfair prejudice that outweighed any relevance.

The Volokh Conspiracy has coverage.

Hall was convicted in 2015 of murdering a retired Texas A&M University professor in October 2011 by stabbing him multiple times and shooting him in the forehead, according to the opinion and prior coverage by BuzzFeed News. Hall was 18 at the time of the crime and had confessed to killing the professor and slashing the throat of the professor’s wife, who survived the ordeal. He was sentenced to death.

Jurors had found that Hall posed a future danger to society, which was needed for a death sentence, according to prior coverage of the case by the Austin American-Statesman.

Hall’s comments arguably evinced a lack of remorse, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said.

Comedy Central comedian Jeff Ross was at the Brazos County Detention Center in February 2015 to film a comedy special. The jail permitted the Comedy Central personality to photograph or record any inmate who had signed a release.

Ross spoke with Hall and other inmates in a 17-minute conversation.

One exchange could lead a fact finder to conclude that Hall viewed his crime as petty, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said.

It began when Ross mentioned the Texas death penalty and said it was “a scary state.” Another inmate said Texas wasn’t bashful about handing out death sentences, and Hall agreed. “Yeah, they’ll, uh, they’ll hang you for the, they’ll hang you for—well, they, they’ll basically, screw you over, over the most, uh, petty s- - -.”

In another exchange, Ross made a joke that a rational fact finder could interpret as making light of his crime, according to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Here is the conversation:

“Ross: … What are you in here for?

Appellant: Ah …

Ross: Hacking somebody’s computer?

Appellant: Something like that, yes.

Other inmate: ‘Hacking’ being the operative word.

Appellant: Yeah. Yeah, used a machete on someone’s screen, so.”

In a third exchange, Hall displayed what a rational fact finder could construe as a disregard for human life, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said. The conversation began with Ross pointing at Hall and declaring that he seemed like a “scary dude.” Here is what followed:

“Appellant: Oh, come on, I wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Ross: What’s that?

Appellant: I wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Ross: Really? What about a human?

Appellant: Eh, they’re annoying. We’ll leave ’em to their own devices, so.”

During oral arguments in September 2019, Hall’s lawyer argued that Ross was a professional showman who delivered a misleading image of Hall, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

The video “contains Mr. Ross making fun of Mr. Hall’s appearance and his demeanor,” said the lawyer, Rob Owen. “It contains belittling comments about his ethnic background, the fact that he is Asian. It contains attempts to provoke Mr. Hall into a response by saying things to him like, ‘You must’ve done something crazy’” to be stuck in jail waiting trial for four years.

Hall’s video did not air on Comedy Central.

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