Texas

Did the Comedy Central Special Contribute to the Death Sentence of a Texas Man?

Opening his 2015 Comedy Central special, comedian Jeff Ross said he wanted to humanize inmates in a Texas prison.

In many ways, the comedian, famous for starring celebrities including Donald Trump, William Shatner, and Pamela Anderson, has succeeded. In the special Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live in the Brazos County Jail, inmates complain about how they missed their children, the brutality of lockdown, and the reality of recidivism.

Standing in a rubber-lined isolation cell above a hole in the ground that served as a toilet, Ross even forced a detention assistant to admit on camera that solitary confinement could be considered torture.

But lawyers for one inmate Ross spoke to said it had another effect—it contributed to the jury’s decision to sentence their client to death.

Lawyers for then Brazos County Jail inmate Gabriel Paul Hall said jail officials granted Ross and his Comedy Central crew access to their client despite their explicit request to contact his legal team before prison or state officials spoke to Hall. According to Hall’s lawyers, prison officials ignored this request, and Ross interrogated him for about 17 minutes.

Hall’s lawyers said his Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer was violated by the prison, allowing the crew to have unfettered access to their client, who made several statements that they said could have contributed to the jury’s decision to sentence him to death. After previous state appeals failed, Hall’s attorneys took the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In their petition to the country’s highest court, Hall’s lawyers note that despite the gruesome nature of the crime for which Hall was convicted – capital murder – it took the jury more than seven hours to decide on the death penalty. During the trial, Hall’s legal team presented several extenuating circumstances that would have justified a life sentence rather than the death penalty, including a history of childhood abuse and his relatively quiet time in prison until trial.

“In view of the extensive mitigating evidence, including, in particular, the testimony of prison officials that any threat of violence from [Hall] could be safely monitored in prison, the Comedy Central video most likely influenced the jury’s decision, which [Hall] represented an unacceptable and ongoing threat to society,” his lawyers wrote.

Hall’s attorneys did not respond to an email asking for comment. Not Ross, not his agent, not a representative of Comedy Central’s parent company, Paramount Global.

In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the Brazos County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the prison, said the department “has no new information to provide.” A spokesman declined to respond to a claim by Hall’s lawyers that the prison allowed Ross access to their client, despite their apparent desire.

The special, which was filmed over three days in February 2015, features Ross casually hanging out with several groups of inmates, shooting a basketball and eating prison food. Ross also participated in live shows and roasted in front of dozens of inmates. The special offer was interspersed with statistics on the number of prisoners in America’s prisons and the number of children whose parents are incarcerated.

When Ross arrived at the prison to film the special in February 2015, Hall was incarcerated and awaiting trial for over three years. On the first day of filming, Ross and the crew entered the heavily guarded wing of the prison where Hall was being held. Ross asked Hall what he did to put him in jail.

“Hack someone’s computer?” Ross asked, according to a transcript of the video included in the Supreme Court petition.

“Something like that, yes,” Hall replied. Another prisoner intervened: “The key word is burglary.”

Ross said Hall looked like “[expletive] scary dude,” the transcript reads. Hall replied that he wouldn’t hurt a fly.

“Really, but what about the man?” Ross asked. Hall replied, “They’re annoying.”

Ross also made several comments about Hall, who was born in the Philippines, which Hall’s lawyers say could ignite any anti-Asian prejudices on the jury.

“Video dehumanized [Hall] like a funny, strange foreigner; it contained derisive comments [Hall’s] behavior and appearance, as well as indirect but hostile or derogatory references to [Hall’s] ethnic (Asian) heritage. And the video highlighted many false, unfair and damaging stereotypes about inmates and prison,” Hall’s lawyers wrote. “…Each of these inappropriate factors could easily have influenced the jury’s opinion as to whether the circumstances [Hall’s] justified condescension.”

According to the petition, the MP who accompanied Ross through prison informed her superior of Hall’s involvement after the interview ended. The supervisor ordered the film crew not to use any footage of Hall.

Hall was not included in the special, but the footage was subpoenaed and obtained by the Brazos County District Attorney’s office for use during Hall’s trial.

The petition will go to the Supreme Court on Friday. It’s unclear when judges can decide whether to hear arguments from Hall’s lawyers.

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