Death Watch: Is “Broken” Justen Hall Competent to Be Executed?
If a stay is not granted, Hall will be the fifth Texas inmate put to death this fall
On Oct. 6, 2016, Justen Hall, acting as his own attorney, wrote to a district court in El Paso, asking that it dismiss the appeals filed on his behalf and set his execution date. "These walls 24/7 have broken me," he stated. "I need to be put down like the rabid dog I am." Three years later, after the process he had hoped to avoid, Hall's execution is near; he is to be killed on Nov. 6. But in a motion on Oct. 22, his attorneys asked the same El Paso court to order a hearing to determine if he is mentally competent to be executed.
As district captain of the Aryan Circle gang, Hall ran a meth house in El Paso, a spot where gang members lived and partied. On the night of Oct. 28, 2002, prospective gang member Ted Murgatroyd and a friend, Melanie Billhartz, got into an argument. Billhartz threatened to call the cops on the gang's meth cooking operation. Hall overheard the threat and disappeared with Billhartz in her truck. Hours later, he returned with her dead body. Within days, Hall was arrested and confessed. He was sentenced to death in 2005.
Hall's 2016 letter to the court was unequivocal. He said he wanted to waive his appeals; that the assertions in them were false; that he alone was guilty for the murder of Billhartz; and that he was mentally competent to be put to death. He specifically said he wanted to waive his motion for DNA testing of the electrical cord used to strangle Billhartz, stating it had been made solely as a stall tactic.
Hall also said he wanted to dismiss the attorneys handling his appeals. Those attorneys, in a hearing before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in early 2017, argued against that idea. To Hall's dismay, they said that if he fired them, they would ask for a hearing to determine if he was mentally competent to do so. They informed the court that Hall had attempted suicide shortly after sending his letter by ingesting a large amount of methamphetamine.
Hall relented and kept the attorneys, but a competency test was ordered anyway. The judges ruled that his attempt to end his life – and his hallucinations, paranoia, depression, and bipolar disorder – didn't make him incompetent to waive his appeals. In fact, they said, his depression and desire to die were understandable for one in his position. In January of this year, the CCA slammed the door on the request for DNA testing, saying any information gained from such a test wouldn't have changed the jury's verdict.
Now, as his execution nears, Hall's attorneys have again asked that Hall be evaluated for competency. They say he has cut off communication with them since the hearing in 2017. They list Hall's mental disorders and the drugs he takes for them and say his mental state has worsened, citing a video taken days after his suicide attempt that shows Hall in hysterics, "acting aggressively and responding to external stimuli that [are] not there."
In an affidavit included with the motion, Benjamin Wolff of the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs says he noticed a deterioration in Hall starting in the fall of 2017. Six weeks ago, Wolff traveled to death row with Hall's mother. Hall had stopped communicating with her – or anyone – about his case, not taking calls and refusing to leave his cell when visitors arrived. On this occasion, however, Hall did leave his cell. Wolff, with Hall's mother beside him, asked if there was any assistance he could provide. "He remained standing with his lips pursed and did not speak," Wolff states. "He then turned his back to me, and continued standing with his back to me (and the Visitors Area) for approximately an hour before he was escorted back to his cell."
Wolff and his fellow attorneys have had no communication with Hall since the visit. They expect the El Paso court to rule on their competency motion shortly. If the execution is not stayed, Hall will be the fifth inmate put to death in Texas this fall.