NASHVILLE — The execution of a blind man in Tennessee this week would mark only the second time in recent decades that a person without vision has been put to death in the United States, the death row inmate’s lawyers say.
Lee Hall, 53, is scheduled to be electrocuted Thursday in a state that has accelerated the pace of its executions over the past year.
Hall had his sight when he entered death row nearly three decades ago, but attorneys for the condemned prisoner say he’s since become functionally blind due to improperly treated glaucoma.
Hall’s attorneys say only one other blind prisoner has been executed since the death penalty was reinstated by the US Supreme Court in 1976.
His case illustrates a trend in capital punishment: The longer inmates across the country wait to die, the more medical ailments they are likely to have by the time they enter the execution chamber.
“Death row is not — and is not intended to be — a nurturing environment, and it is unfortunately an environment that is extremely, physically, and mentally debilitating,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The stress of living under a death penalty “has both physical and psychological consequences,” he said.
Hall, formerly known as Leroy Hall Jr., has been on death row since he was convicted for the 1991 killing of his estranged girlfriend Traci Crozier. According to court documents, Hall threw a lit jug of gasoline into a car while Crozier was in the front seat trying to leave him. As a result, Crozier was burned on more than 90 percent of her body and died the next day.
In 2010, Hall was diagnosed with “chronic angle closure glaucoma.” Hall’s eyesight has continued to decline since then, his attorneys explained in court documents. They say the Department of Correction has failed to comply with medical recommendations to prevent further damage.
A spokeswoman for the department did not immediately return a request for comment.
“Lee Hall is blind and vulnerable. If confined to prison for the remainder of natural life, Mr. Hall bears no practical risk of harm to anyone,” Hall’s attorneys wrote in 2018. “The spectacle — guiding him to the gurney — would ‘offend humanity.’ ”
To date, the US Supreme Court has neither set an upper age limit for executions nor created an exception for a physical infirmity.
The high court has, however, said the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment means that people who are insane, delusional, or psychotic cannot be executed.
Yet that definition of “insane” is narrowly defined and as a result, most people with severe mental illness are often excluded.
“While blindness is a physical disability that may make an execution seem crueler and more inhumane, it doesn’t go to the question of competency of whether he may be executed,” Dunham said.
According to Hall’s attorneys, the last blind person executed was Clarence Ray Allen, who died via lethal injection in 2006 in California. Along with being unable to see, Allen was also a wheelchair-user and nearly deaf.
At the time, Allen, 76, was the oldest and most infirm inmate prisoner to be executed in the United States. And like Hall, Allen had been on death row for decades, where many of his infirmities developed while behind bars.
Last month, Hall announced he had decided to die by the electric chair rather than by lethal injection. Since Tennessee resumed executions in August 2018, three of the five prisoners put to death have chosen the electric chair.
In Tennessee, the state’s primary execution method is lethal injection, but inmates who were convicted of crimes before January 1999 can choose electrocution.
With just days left before Thursday’s planned execution, Hall’s attorneys are asking Governor Bill Lee for a reprieve to allow more time to consider questions about the possible bias of a juror who helped deliver the original death sentence.
Lee is reviewing the request. He has previously sidestepped questions about Tennessee executing a blind person, saying he did not know enough details about the case.