- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Steven Hall’s removal from death row boils down to Minnie Lett - a black woman who Hall’s attorneys argue was wrongfully excluded from his jury more than 20 years ago.

In 1993, Monroe County district attorneys showed evidence at Hall’s trial depicting the murder of 69-year-old Clarene Haskew. She was beaten, strangled and shot twice in her kitchen one December night in 1991. Her telephone line had been cut, and the glass in her front door was shattered.

The perpetrators stole her silverware, a phone book and her gray Ford LTD.

“When her body was discovered, Haskew’s home was in total disarray and a pentagram had been spray-painted on the kitchen cabinets. The words ‘Thunderstruck’ were also spray-painted on the floor near Haskew’s body,” read one court document related to the case.

Steve Wadlington, the Monroe County DA who helped prosecute the case, still remembers almost everything about it.

“The community was horrified,” Wadlington said. “It was frightening that this could happen to someone who presumed she was going to be safe in her own home.”

Authorities ultimately developed Hall and his co-defendant, Wayne Travis, as suspects. The two were tried separately.

At Hall’s trial, his counsel argued that he didn’t know Travis was going to kill Haskew, but both co-defendants were ultimately found guilty of capital murder.

During the penalty phase, Hall’s attorney tried to negotiate a lesser sentence by pointing to evidence of Hall’s difficult upbringing.

“A psychologist explained that he diagnosed Hall with borderline personality disorder, which made him more likely to follow others than lead. Relying on this evidence, defense counsel argued that Travis actually killed Clarene Haskew and Hall should be sentenced to life without parole,” another court filing stated.

In the end, Hall and Travis were each sentenced to death by electrocution and now reside on death row at Holman Correctional Facility.

But on Thursday afternoon in a Monroe County courtroom, the case will be re-opened. Hall was scheduled to plead guilty to the murder and receive a reduced sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

When jury selection in State of Alabama v. Steven Hall got underway some 20 years ago, prosecutors used nine of their 14 strikes against black potential jury members. Hall’s attorney challenged the state’s selection, arguing that some of the strikes appeared racially motivated - especially in Lett’s case.

“Mrs. Lett was struck because of her general answering to questions, her uneasiness about the questions and also her easiness about the death penalty and her strong reservations that she expressed about the death penalty. And we struck her for that reason, which we believe to be a non-racial reason,” the prosecutor responded, according to court transcripts.

The trial judge sided with the state, and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals later affirmed the trial court.

Then, 20 years after the trial’s conclusion, U.S. District Judge Callie Granade issued an order stating that the reason the prosecution gave for excluding Lett from the jury - her feelings toward the death penalty - was just a pretext. She also stated that prosecutors misrepresented Lett’s feelings toward the death penalty.

Granade overturned the lower courts’ decisions and granted Hall a new trial. Her order was a response to a petition filed by the Federal Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama, which now represents Hall, who is white.

“In her juror questionnaire, Lett summarized her feelings on the death penalty as ‘it depends, maybe it’s the right thing,’ Granade wrote in her order.

“She also stated that the death penalty should be imposed in cases which involved ‘taking another life on purpose,’ and indicated that she ‘strongly agree(d)’ with the statement ‘Any person who intentionally kills another should get the death penalty,’ adding, in her own words, ‘they took a life, willing to give up their own.”

The Alabama attorney general’s office subsequently appealed her ruling to the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, arguing that Lett showed ambivalence toward the death penalty when prosecutors asked her about it.

“Are there cases in which you could vote for the death penalty under certain kinds of facts, certain kinds of cases?” a prosecutor asked Lett during the ‘93 jury selection.

“Well, I think the death penalty, to me, I couldn’t really say, but, if it be a threat to the public,” Lett said, though she ultimately answered that she could listen to all the evidence and base her decision off that.

Hall’s counsel countered in a filing that not only did Lett show support of the death penalty, but that prosecutors failed to question and strike white potential jurors who displayed less support for the death penalty than Lett did.

“Any reservations Ms. Lett indicated in her questionnaire (about the death penalty) were, at most, minimal,” wrote Matt Schulz, a federal defender who represents Hall. “… Further, when asked, ‘In what types of cases/offenses do you feel the death penalty should be imposed?’ Ms. Lett answered, ‘Taking another life on purpose.’”

Eight months after Hall’s attorneys responded to the attorney general’s appeal, both parties entered a joint motion indicating that they had reached a plea agreement, which included Hall’s reduced sentence.

Wadlington explained that the attorney general’s office has been handling the case since the conviction and that he consented to the sentence only after Haskew’s family agreed to it.

“(Haskew’s family) sent us a letter saying they wished we would (consent to the plea), and not put their family through any more heartache about this case,” Wadlington said. “The case was 23 years ago. Several of the family members are sick. Some are dead. They want to just be done with it. It’d be a new trial and another 20 years of appeals.”

Though Wadlington said he agrees the plea deal was the right move, he maintains that no jury strikes were racially motivated.

“I respect (Granade’s) decision, but we disagree that there was a violation,” Wadlington said. “We went to untold lengths to make sure that we did not strike anybody off that jury that we didn’t have a valid, non-discriminatory reason for striking. We spent hours working on the jury list in that case.”

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