WARNING: Graphic content
A man convicted of kidnapping and raping a 16-year-old Texas girl before dousing her with gasoline and burying her alive was executed on Thursday (Friday NZT), the eighth federal inmate put to death this year after a nearly two-decade hiatus.
Orlando Hall, 49, was pronounced dead at 11.47pm ET (5.47pm NZT) after being given a lethal injection at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.
In his final words, Hall invited others to Islam, thanked those who supported him and sought to reassure them, saying, "I'm okay."
After a statement was read recounting his crimes, Hall took one last opportunity to look to his supporters and say: "Take care of yourselves. Tell my kids I love them."
The late-night execution came after the Supreme Court denied last-minute legal challenges from Hall's attorneys, who had argued that racial bias played a role in his sentencing and had also raised concerns about the execution protocol and other constitutional issues.
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. He then stopped breathing and soon after, an official with a stethoscope came into the execution chamber to check for a heartbeat before Hall was officially declared dead.
Before the Trump administration resumed federal executions this year, only three federal inmates had been executed in the previous 56 years. Two other executions are scheduled for later this year — though a judge on Thursday (local time) said one of them could not be carried out before the end of the year — and president-elect Joe Biden has not said if federal executions will continue when he takes office.
Hall was among five men convicted in the abduction and death of Lisa Rene in 1994.
Federal court documents said Hall was a marijuana trafficker in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who would sometimes buy his drugs in the Dallas area. He arrived in Dallas on September 24, 1994, met two men at a car wash and gave them US$4700 with the expectation they would return later with the marijuana. The two men were Rene's brothers.
Instead, the men claimed their car and the money were stolen in a robbery. Hall and accomplices 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 at the apartment, the brothers weren't there. Lisa Rene was home, alone.
"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. said.
In a statement released by prison officials, her older sister, Pearl Rene, said the execution "marks the end of a very long and painful chapter in our lives".
"My family and I 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," she said.
"Ending this painful process will be a major goal for our family. This is only the end of the legal aftermath. The execution of Orlando Hall will never stop the suffering we continue to endure."
Court records offer a chilling account of the terror her sister faced.
"They're trying to break down my door! Hurry up!" the victim told a 911 dispatcher. A muffled scream was heard seconds later, with a man saying, "Who you on the phone with?"
The line then went dead.
Stanton said the men smashed a sliding glass door to get inside and immediately took off with Rene. Police arrived within minutes but the men, and Rene, were already gone, said Stanton, still wincing at the near-miss of thwarting the crime at its onset.
"It was one that I won't ever forget," Stanton 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, her eyes covered by a mask. They led her to a gravesite they had dug a day earlier. Hall placed a sheet over Rene's head then hit her in the head with a shovel.
She tried to run but was dragged into the grave, doused in gasoline 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.
Crossing the Texas-Arkansas line made the case a federal crime. One of Hall's accomplices, Bruce Webster, also was sentenced to death but the sentence was vacated last year because he is intellectually disabled. Three other men, including Hall's brother, received lesser sentences in exchange for their cooperation at trial.
Hall's lawyers contend that jurors who recommend the death penalty weren't told of the severe trauma he faced as a child or that he once saved a 3-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 Terre Haute prison. They corresponded by email until days before his death.
Keogh said Hall had two sons, ages 28 and 27, and 13 grandchildren.
Hall turned his life around in prison, educating himself and becoming an avid reader, Keogh said. She couldn't understand the value in executing him.
"My faith tells me that all life is precious and that includes the lives on death row," Keogh said. "I just don't see any purpose."
Hall's lawyer, Marcy Widder, released a statement after the execution saying: "Tonight, the federal government took the life of a man who spent the last quarter century repenting for his role in the death of Lisa Rene and striving every day to become a better father, brother, son, and human in honour of her memory. The world was not made a better place because of his death; rather, we are all diminished by our government's ruthless desire to kill, and its devaluing of hope and redemption."
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 September 24 for killing an Iowa couple who were visiting Texas in 1999.
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.
A September report by the Washington, DC-based Death Penalty Information Centre said Black people remain overrepresented on death rows, including federal death row. The organisation's database shows that 25 of 55 federal death row inmates (46 per cent) are Black, while Blacks make up only about 13 per cent of the US population.