A man on death row in Texas is appealing his sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that a video clip of him chatting with a Comedy Central comedian was used improperly as evidence against him during his trial.
In 2015, comedian Jeff Ross visited a Texas jail to film some jokes for the Comedy Central special. For three days, film crews trailed Ross, an insult comic known for his roasts, as he interacted with people behind bars. He gave a stand-up performance and roast where explained that he came to the jail because he believed in second chances — and because he wanted to see if the people incarcerated there had a sense of humor about their situation. In the final product, Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live at Brazos County Jail, scenes of Ross addressing the crowd of men in orange jumpsuits are interspersed with stats about mass incarceration in the U.S. While at the jail, he also spoke with several people off-stage, riffing with them about their lives in jail and their plans for when they got out. (Ross did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.) One of the people he chatted up on camera was Gabriel Hall, who was at the time awaiting trial for murder.
A few months after the taping, Hall was found guilty of 2011 killing of Ed Shaar, an elderly Navy veteran. Hall, 18 at the time of the crime, confessed to attacking Shaar and his wife Linda at random, sneaking into their house and stabbing Shaar nearly to death before shooting him in the face at close range. Hall also stabbed Shaar’s wife, Linda Shaar, who was in a wheelchair. (She survived.) He told authorities he enjoyed stabbing more than shooting, and said he had not been deterred by Linda’s pleas for mercy.
Although video of Hall talking with Ross did not make the special, prosecutors subpoenaed Comedy Central for it and showed a clip to the jury during the punishment phase of Hall’s trial. According to court records, the footage showed Ross talking with Hall and two other incarcerated people around a table. “What are you in for? Hacking somebody’s computer?” Ross asked Hall at one point, making a racist joke about Hall’s Filipino background. “Something like that,” Hall said, before another incarcerated person chimed in, “Hacking being the operative word.” Hall joked that he took a machete to someone’s screen. Ross said he seemed like “a fuckin’ scary dude,” to which Hall said, “Oh come on, I wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Ross asked, “What about a human?” “Ah, they’re annoying,” Hall said. Hall got the death sentence.
Prosecutors claimed the video was evidence that four years after the murder, Hall still felt no remorse for what he’d done. In 2019, Hall’s defense appealed the sentence in Texas, saying that the video violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel, because Hall was not supposed to speak to anyone without his lawyers present. They further argued that the back-and-forths with Ross created a misleading portrayal of Hall. He was playing along with a comedian, they claimed, not revealing his true feelings. That appeal was denied.
In January, SCOTUS is scheduled to consider the appeal. Hall’s attorneys are arguing again that the video violates his Sixth Amendment right to an attorney. In a court filing, the defense further claimed the video “dehumanized” Hall “as a funny-looking, weird-acting foreigner; it contained comments mocking Petitioner’s demeanor and appearance, and it included oblique but hostile or belittling reference to Petitioner’s ethnic (Asian) heritage.”
The Supreme Court is scheduled to discuss the appeal at their Jan. 6, 2023, conference. Lawyers for Hall did not respond to a request for comment, although one of Hall’s attorneys, McKenzie Edwards, tweeted about the appeal on Wednesday. “A Texas jail volunteered to let Comedy Central comedian Jeff Ross roast its inmates,” she wrote. “It encouraged inmates to participate. Texas then used the footage to sentence my client, Gabriel Hall, to death. We’re asking #SCOTUS to review the constitutionality of Mr. Hall’s sentence.”