The execution of a visionless man in Tennessee this week would mark solely the second time in recent decades that a person without vision has been put to end in the U.S., the death row inmate’s attorneys say.
Lee Hall, 53, is listed to be executed Thursday in a state that has quickened the pace of its executions over the past year.
Hall had his vision when he entered death row approximately three decades ago, but attorneys for the convicted prisoner say he’s since become functionally blind due to poorly treated glaucoma.
Hall’s lawyers say only one other blind prisoner has been hung since the death penalty was restored by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.
His case shows a trend in capital punishment: The longer prisoners across the country wait to die, the more medical illnesses they are likely to have by the time they enter the execution room.
“Death row is not — and is not meant to be — a nurturing environment, and it is, sadly, an environment that is great, physically and mentally debilitating,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The pressure of living under a death penalty “has both physical and mental consequences,” he said.
Hall, previously known as Leroy Hall Jr., has been on death row since he was sentenced for the 1991 killing of his estranged lover Traci Crozier. According to court documents, Hall threw a lit jug of gasoline into a vehicle while Crozier was in the front seat seeking to leave him. As a result, Crozier was burned on more than 90% of her body and expired the next day.
In 2010, Hall was diagnosed with “serious angle-closure glaucoma.” Hall’s eyesight has remained to decline since then, his lawyers explained in court documents. They say the Department of Correction has missed complying with medical recommendations to prevent additional damage.
To date, the U.S. Supreme Court has not set an upper age limit for executions nor created an exclusion for physical illness.
The high court has, though, said the constitutional ban on wild and unusual punishment means that people who are sick, delusional or psychotic cannot be hung.
Yet that meaning of “insane” is narrowly defined and as a consequence, most people with severe mental sickness are often excluded.
According to Hall’s lawyers, the last blind person executed was Clarence Ray Allen, who died through deadly injection in 2006 in California. Along with being incapable to see, Allen was also a wheelchair-user and almost deaf.
At the event, Allen, 76, was the oldest and most ill inmate prisoner to be executed in the United States. And like Hall, Allen had been on death row for decades, where many of his illnesses developed while behind bars.
Last month, Hall declared he had chosen to die by the electric chair rather than by lethal injection. Since Tennessee continued executions in August 2018, three of the five prisoners put to death have accepted the electric chair.
In Tennessee, the state’s first execution method is a poisonous injection, but inmates who were sentenced to crimes before January 1999 can choose electrocution.
With merely days left before Thursday’s thought execution, Hall’s attorneys are asking Gov. Bill Lee for a reprieve to provide more time to consider questions about the probable bias of a juror who helped deliver the original death decision.
Lee is reviewing the application. He has earlier sidestepped questions about Tennessee executing a blind person, stating he did not know enough details about the case.