Photo: Orlando Hall and victim Lisa Rene (Metro)

The nun made famous by the film Dead Man Walking has denounced that the trial leading to the planned execution today of a Black man was “completely and totally tainted by racism”.

– “Blatant racism in the legal system is like a poison that kills public trust. We must demand better”: Sister Helen Prejean

“The U.S. government plans to execute Orlando Hall – a Black man who was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury – tomorrow evening [November 19]. Orlando’s trial was completely and totally tainted by racism from the very beginning”, deplored Sister Helen Prejean in a Twitter thread Wednesday in the US.

Hall, 49, is one of the five men who were convicted for the 1994 kidnapping, gang rape and brutal murder of 16-year-old Lisa Rene – also Black – in Arlington, Texas.

But as Prejean saw it, Hall was the victim of a “multi-pronged campaign” carried out by the government to deprive him of a jury of his Black peers.

The nun said the first step in that campaign against Hall was for federal prosecutors to bring the case in Fort Worth, where 10% of the population at the time was Black, instead of Pine Bluff, which had a 36% Black population.

The second step was the fact that only seven Black people were included in a pool of 100 potential jurors for Hall’s case, with one of those seven removed before the trial began.

The third step in the campaign against Hall was for prosecutors to use peremptory strikes – their right to dismiss potential jurors without giving a reason – in order to exclude four of the six Black people under consideration to serve.

They left one Black woman in the pool knowing that the defence would almost certainly strike her over her support for the death penalty, Prejean explained.

When Hall’s lawyers objected to the prosecution striking almost all of the potential Black jurors, “the prosecutors flat-out lied to the Court”, the nun decried, by dishonestly claiming that they had first tried to dismiss the potential jurors for cause before resorting to peremptory strikes.

“This jury was selected, shaped really, through the lens of these prosecutors’ desire to exclude every otherwise qualified Black person from serving as a juror. This is patently unconstitutional under a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases”, the nun recalled.

She added that one of the prosecutors involved in the Hall case was later called out by name for racial bias not only by the Supreme Court but by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit as well.

“We should not tolerate this pervasive racial bias and prejudice in our legal system. We cannot allow our government to execute fellow citizens who were tried and sentenced through the operation of racism”, Prejean pleaded.

“Orlando Hall was convicted of a terrible crime. Nothing said in this thread is meant to excuse or downplay that fact. But it is important to recognize that constitutional protections only have meaning and force when they apply equally to the guilty and the innocent.

“It is undeniable that Orlando Hall’s trial was tainted with racism. That alone is reason enough to stop tomorrow’s scheduled execution. As courts have recognized, blatant racism in the legal system is like a poison that kills public trust. We must demand better from the system”.

– Bishops plead with Trump, Barr: “The decision not to execute someone is not ‘soft on crime’; rather, it is strong on the dignity of life”

Also denouncing the planned execution today of Hall were the US Bishops, who in a statement Wednesday said “sadly, we must call on the Administration yet again to stop an execution”.

“Two more are scheduled in December. We are now on pace for ten federal executions in 2020, more than double the previous record of four in 1938”, the prelates lamented.

“The death penalty is not necessary to protect society. It is not necessary to hold people accountable for grave crimes. The decision not to execute someone, even someone who has done something terrible, is not ‘soft on crime’; rather, it is strong on the dignity of life”, the US Bishops clamoured.

Citing as support for their anti-death penalty position Pope Francis’ words in the encyclical Fratelli tutti to the effect that “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this”, the US Bishops appealed to President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr: “as an act of witness to the dignity of all human life: stop these executions”.

The Catholic outrage over Hall’s planned execution today came as a Gallup poll found that support for the death penalty among US citizens has fallen to its lowest level in a half-century.

“For a fourth consecutive year, fewer than six in 10 Americans (55 percent) are in favor of the death penalty for convicted murderers. Death penalty support has not been lower since 1972, when 50 percent were in favor”, Gallup explained.

Should it go ahead Thursday, Hall’s will be the eighth federal execution to take place this year after a 17-year hiatus of executions on the federal level, as the Catholic Mobilizing Network against the death penalty pointed out.

Update 20/11 11:30 CET: Orlando Hall was finally executed Thursday evening.

More on Novena on the Church’s opposition to the death penalty:

Catholic community launches campaign to abolish “inhuman and arbitrary” death penalty worldwide

Holy See representative to UN in Geneva says capital punishment “the biggest sin a human being can commit in the name of justice”

US Bishops remind Trump, AG Barr: “Executions are completely unnecessary and unacceptable”

US Bishops reaffirm opposition to death penalty: “Even a person who has sinned terribly does not forfeit their human dignity”


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Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.