Orlando Hall was executed via lethal injection on Thursday night in Indiana. Mainstream news sources like The New York Times, People Magazine, and CNN choose to comment more on how he is the “eighth person executed [by the government] after a 17-year-hiatus” instead of on his heinous crimes.
According to U.S. Department of Justice court documents, in 1994, “Hall and several accomplices ran a marijuana trafficking operation out of Arkansas. After a failed drug transaction involving $4,700, Hall and his accomplices drove to Arlington, Texas, home of a man they believed had stolen their money.”
Lisa Rene, the 16-year-old sister of the alleged thief, refused to let the men inside. She would become their victim and endure brutal, inhumane treatment: kidnapping, repeated rape, getting beat with a shovel, doused in gasoline, and then buried alive.
Lisa Rene was an honor-roll student, with the aspiration of becoming a doctor. Instead of news outlets highlighting the crimes committed against her, who she was, and the positive and ambitious track her life was on, they choose to point out Hall’s race and the apparent injustice he faced in receiving the death penalty.
The News Media Chooses To Humanize Hall and Minimize His Crimes against Rene
The headline of The New York Times read “Justice Dept. Executes Man for 1994 Kidnapping and Murder,” and its subtitle details how Hall’s execution is “the eighth since the Trump administration revived capital punishment for federal crimes and the first of three scheduled during the presidential transition.”
CNN’s reads, “Federal inmate executed for murder of Texas teen in 1994,” and its subtitle quickly mentions Hall’s crimes against Rene. Finally, People Magazine’s headline says “Orlando Hall, 49, Executed by U.S. Government for 1994 Kidnapping and Murder of 16-Year-Old Texas Girl,” and its subtitle goes so far as to humanize Hall: “‘I’m okay. Take care of yourselves,’ [Hall] reportedly said in his final statement before his execution.”
When a news source is reporting on the execution, the reason why it’s happening should be highlighted.
These articles highlight one aspect that’s seemingly of great importance to them: Hall is the eighth person executed by the government after a 17-year hiatus from the federal death penalty, that ended in July. All of the ones mentioned above state this near the very beginning of the headline, and The New York Times mentions that all eight executions were under the Trump administration. They go on to write, “President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has said he will work to end the use of capital punishment by the federal government, reversing President Trump’s support for it.” Other sources such as The New York Post don’t mention this and keep the focus on the crimes and the details of the execution.
The New York Times and People Magazine seem to have a goal of humanizing Hall, in spite of his monstrous crimes. The New York Times writes, “In his last words, Mr. Hall thanked his supporters and assured them that he was all right, according to a report from a journalist in attendance. ‘Take care of yourselves,’ he said. ‘Tell my kids I love them’.” People Magazine and The New York Post report that these were his last words as well, and while that’s fair to mention in a report detailing the execution, the placement of this humanizing factoid is interesting as it varies across the publications. People Magazine and The New York Post have it at the end of their articles, meanwhile The New York Times’ placement is towards the beginning of the article, prior to the details of Hall’s crimes against Rene.
The discussion of support or condemnation of the death penalty can and should be a separate story.
The framing of the story is interesting as it varies across the mentioned publications. Mentioning the political aspect of his execution could be perceived as trying to bring attention to the number of executions this year, since July, as if to appeal to those against the death penalty. The discussion of support or condemnation of the death penalty can and should be a separate story, but when a news source is reporting on the execution, the reason why it’s happening should be highlighted, especially when the crime in question took place in 1994 and was of an especially heinous nature.
News Commentators and Netizens Defend Hall
CNN commentator and author Keith Boykin tweeted on November 20:
Boykin points out Hall’s race and the race of the jury. Additionally, he mentions there were no executions under the Obama administration and Biden plans to end them. He makes no mention of Hall’s crimes nor of Lisa Rene. In this initial tweet, he makes no mention of his intent to apparently condemn the death penalty no matter what, but he clarifies this in a subsequent tweet.
Other netizens show support for Boykin. Some on the basis of the jury being an all-white jury, and others on the basis of pure racism. Indiana reporter Jordan Kudisch tweeted the news of Hall being pronounced dead, one user called the execution a lynching, others put the blame on Attorney General William Barr on the execution and the return of the death penalty.
Religious leaders and activists, who echo anti-Trump sentiments largely on account of the return of the death penalty and alleged racism, also condemned Hall’s execution.
Neither makes any mention of the crimes against Lisa Rene. Sister Prejean emphasizes more about how Hall’s trial was “completely and totally tainted by racism from the very beginning” and only after 18 follow-up tweets does she say, “Orlando Hall was convicted of a terrible crime. Nothing said in this thread is meant to excuse or downplay that fact.” Except she is. By saying Hall is a victim, she is at best minimizing and at worst erasing the experience and death of Lisa Rene.
The Racist Implication Behind the Claims Defending Hall
Individuals such as Sister Prejean claim that the trial was racist and doomed from the beginning purely on account of the jury being mostly white. The implication, whether intentional or not, is that if the jury was more evenly split between black and white jurors (the black population in Fort Worth at the time was only 10%, according to her own tweet), Hall would have had a chance at avoiding the death penalty. She makes this even clearer in a subsequent tweet, further down from her initial post:
“We cannot allow our government to execute fellow citizens who were tried and sentenced through the operation of racism.” The implication is that if there were black jurors present, Hall would not have faced the death penalty. The black community isn’t a hive mind. Just because a black individual sees another black individual on trial, doesn’t mean they’re going to try to save them or side with them. I highly doubt a black woman, with a daughter of her own around Lisa Rene’s age, would side with Orlando Hall.
When Hall never denied participation in Rene’s murder, it’s hard to make the claim that he was unfairly judged.
According to court documents, Lisa Rene played no part in the drug transaction that Hall and his accomplices visited her house for. They kidnapped her at gunpoint, and in one of the assailant’s car, Hall raped her, forced her to perform oral sex on him, and when they arrived at a hotel in Arkansas they tied her to a chair and repeatedly raped her. After they decided that she knew too much, they drove her to a park where one of the accomplices had dug a grave earlier. When they couldn’t find the grave, they left, went back the next morning, and hit her over the head with a shovel. She tried to run away, but the men tackled her and then took turns beating her with the shovel. They then doused her in gasoline and buried her alive. She was found eight days later.
If she were alive, Rene would be about 42 years old. She would have been a doctor for at least eight years now. But instead, her life was taken by someone seeking drug money.
There can be a discussion on the death penalty, and perhaps even a discussion about how a jury should be weighed. However, when Hall never denied participation in Rene’s murder, it’s hard to make the claim that he was unfairly judged. But it’s immoral and heartbreaking that the news media will largely focus more on Hall’s race than the horrors that Lisa Rene lived through and suffered before her death. She should not be forgotten. And issues like race should not be allowed to undermine the brutal treatment, rape, and murder of a child.