A 49-year-old man has been put to death in the US over the abduction and murder of a 16-year-old girl in Texas in 1994.
Orlando Hall’s death by lethal injection marked the eighth federal execution this year since the Trump administration revived a legal process that had been used just three times in the past 56 years.
A judge’s stay over concerns about the execution drug gave Hall a reprieve, but only for less than six hours.
After the US supreme court overturned the stay, Hall was put to death in the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, just before midnight.
“I’m OK,” he said in a final statement, then added: “Take care of yourselves. Tell my kids I love them.”
As the drug was administered, Hall lifted his head, appeared to wince briefly and twitched his feet.
He appeared to mumble to himself and twice he opened his mouth wide, as if he was yawning. Each time that was followed by short, seemingly laboured, breaths. He then stopped breathing.
Soon afterwards, an official with a stethoscope came into the execution chamber to check for a heartbeat before Hall was officially declared dead.
Hall’s lawyers had sought to halt the execution over concerns that Hall, who was black, was sentenced on the recommendation of an all-white jury.
The Congressional Black Caucus asked US attorney general William Barr to stop the execution because the coronavirus “will make any scheduled execution a tinderbox for further outbreaks and exacerbate concerns over the possibility of miscarriage of justice”.
Meanwhile, another judge ruled on Thursday that the US government must delay until next year the first execution of a female federal inmate in almost six decades after her lawyers contracted the coronavirus visiting her in prison.
Hall was among five men convicted in the abduction and death of Lisa Rene in 1994.
According to federal court documents, Hall was a marijuana trafficker in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who would sometimes buy drugs in the Dallas area.
On September 24 1994, he met two men at a Dallas-area car wash and gave them 4,700 dollars with the expectation they would return later with the marijuana. The two men were Rene’s brothers.
Instead, the men claimed their car and money were stolen. Hall and others figured they were lying and were able to track down the address of the brothers’ apartment in Arlington, Texas.
When Hall and three other men arrived, the brothers were not there. Sixteen-year-old Lisa Rene was at home, alone.
Court records offer a chilling account of the terror she faced.
“They’re trying to break down my door! Hurry up!” she told a 911 dispatcher.
“She was studying for a test and had her textbooks on the couch when these guys came knocking on the front door,” retired Arlington detective John Stanton Sr recalled.
Police arrived within minutes of the 911 call, but the men were gone, with Rene.
Mr Stanton still winces at the near-miss of thwarting the crime in its early stages.
“It was one that I won’t ever forget,” he said. “This one was particularly heinous.”
The men drove to a motel in Pine Bluff. Rene was repeatedly sexually assaulted during the drive and at the motel over the next two days.
On September 26, Hall and two other men drove Rene to Byrd Lake Natural Area in Pine Bluff, with her eyes covered by a mask.
They led her to a grave site they had dug a day earlier.
Hall placed a sheet over Rene’s head then hit her in the head with a shovel. When she ran, another man and Hall took turns hitting her with the shovel before she was gagged and dragged into the grave, where she was doused in petrol before dirt was shovelled over her.
A coroner determined that Rene was still alive when she was buried and died of asphyxiation in the grave, where she was found eight days later.
Rene’s older sister, Pearl Rene, said in a statement that she and her family “are very relieved that this is over. We have been dealing with this for 26 years and now we’re having to relive the tragic nightmare that our beloved Lisa went through”.
Crossing the Texas-Arkansas line made the case a federal crime.
One of Hall’s accomplices, Bruce Webster, was also sentenced to death, though a court last year vacated the sentence because Webster is intellectually disabled.
Three other men, including Hall’s brother, received lesser sentences in exchange for their cooperation at his trial.
Hall’s lawyers contend that jurors who recommended the death penalty were not told of the severe trauma he faced as a child or that he once saved a three-year-old nephew from drowning by leaping into a motel pool from a balcony.
Donna Keogh, 67, first met Hall 16 years ago when she and other volunteers from her Catholic church set up a programme to provide Christmas presents for children of inmates at the federal prison. They have corresponded ever since.
She does not understand what executing Hall accomplishes.
“My faith tells me that all life is precious and that includes the lives on death row,” Ms Keogh said. “I just don’t see any purpose.”
Five of the first six federal executions this year involved white men; the other was Navajo. Christopher Vialva, who was black, was put to death on September 24.
Critics have argued that executing white inmates first was a political calculation in a nation embroiled in racial bias concerns involving the criminal justice system, especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May.
Ms Keogh said Hall has two sons, aged 28 and 27, and 13 grandchildren.