We are better than vengeance, better than a death penalty system skewed to racial injustice

By Terry Fear

Thirteen minutes is the amount of time it takes me to drive to Starbucks. For Orlando Hall, sitting on death row, 13 minutes sealed his execution.

Orlando Hall

Had those 13 minutes passed and the clock struck midnight, Orlando Hall’s stay of execution would have extended for 90 days. But a last-minute Supreme Court decision (6-3) vacated the stay.

Justice is not blind, but it is capricious.

At 11:47 p.m. EST Thursday, Nov. 19, Orlando Hall was pronounced dead at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute. His official cause of death was “legal homicide”. He was 49 years old.

Justice is not blind, but it is capricious.

Orlando Hall was no innocent — he killed a 16 year-old African-American girl. Like (allegedly) O.J. Simpson, Hall committed grisly, brutal murder. Unlike O.J.’s experience, no “Dream Team” defense assisted Orlando. No Johnnie Cochran-like, high-profile attorney demanded on his behalf, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

O.J. Simpson case provides a stark contrast in outcomes

The American justice system is not blind to celebrity, either.

O.J. Simpson’s popularity and wealth provided him with a unique opportunity as an African-American male: he was exonerated by a systemically racist justice system.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), “Racial disparities are present at every stage of a capital case and get magnified as a case moves through the legal process.”

O.J. beat the odds, escaping conviction after perhaps committing the brutal murders of a white woman and a white man. The details are so horrific that I cannot bring myself to type them out. He was found not guilty, but not necessarily because he was innocent of the crime. He was found not guilty because he was O.J. He got the rich man’s justice system.

Death penalty activists conduct a vigil on U.S. Highway 41, near the U.S. Penitentiary, Terre Haute. (DeathPenaltyAction.org)

Orlando Hall got the poor Black man’s justice system

We know that 26 years ago, Orlando Hall brutally murdered his victim. Again, the details are too horrific to describe.

What Orlando did was evil. He put himself into a criminal justice system that would ultimately kill him. Orlando spent 26 years on death row, repenting and mourning the death of that young girl.

‘The modern death penalty is the direct descendant of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow segregation.’

But he had no fame or fortune that would buy him a commutation to life in prison. Instead, an all-white jury condemned Orlando in a Texas courtroom.

Racial discrimination most certainly played a part in driving Orlando’s death sentence. DCIP Executive Director Robert Dunham said, “the modern death penalty is the direct descendant of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow segregation.”

The death penalty plays “an outsized role as an agent and validator of racial discrimination. What is broken or intentionally discriminatory in the criminal legal system is visibly worse in death penalty cases.”

Orlando got the poor Black man’s justice system.

Inter-faith Council decries ‘eye for an eye’

The Inter-faith Council of the Wabash Valley has published a Resolution Opposing the Death Penalty. Our rationales include:

  • The primary message conveyed by an execution is one of brutality and violence. The death penalty is not used fairly, has failed to make society safer, and undermines any possible alternative moral message.
  • The death penalty is uncivilized in theory and inequitable in practice and is disproportionately applied against the most vulnerable in society.
  • Even though all Abrahamic religions reference “eye for an eye” justice, so do they prohibit murder. Execution is murder, even if it is state-sanctioned. Mercy, compassion and forgiveness are fundamental and at the very spirit of all major religions.
( DeathPenaltyAction.org)

Vigils continue outside federal penitentiary in Terre Haute

In person or virtually, I have joined execution vigils along Highway 41 and across the road from the federal prison in Terre Haute. I have protested alongside the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, the Inter-faith Council of the Wabash Valley, NAACP Terre Haute, the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Terre Haute, Death Penalty Action, Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance and the Jewish Abolitionist Society, as well as other individuals, sometimes the families of the prisoners.

Always quiet and somber, we pray and wait. We mourn for the victims and their families, as well as for the prisoners and their families.

We are a small group of heartsick people, hopeless and helpless, keeping vigil over a condemned man or woman being executed in our name.

We are a small group of heartsick people, hopeless and helpless, keeping vigil over a condemned man or woman being executed in our name.

We keep coming back — eight times now in 11 weeks. The next execution is scheduled for the second night of Hanukkah, with two more to follow. Donald Trump, William Barr and SCOTUS have made quite an efficient team.

Repentance should count for something

My personal wish is always for a death sentence to be commuted to life in prison. I long for the U.S. to join other western countries in their ban of the death penalty.

Today, O.J. Simpson, now in his 70s, spends his time golfing. Today, Orlando Hall’s children and grandchildren prepare for his burial. But the starkest difference between these two men remains the subject of repentance.

Even with bloody evidence to the contrary, O.J. maintains his innocence. After all, how could “The Juice”, that lovable hero of NFL fame and Naked Gun movies, butcher his ex and her boyfriend?

Orlando Hall, or Shakib Wali (his Muslim name), was apparently not so lovable. He looked guilty — that is, unless you looked closely at the man he became in prison.

His words came from a transformed man, who thought about his victim every day and mourned over that horrible senseless loss of life he caused. Sitting on death row, he repented and became a man of deep faith.

The condemned prisoner sends a message of farewell and faith

Orlando Hall’s last email on Nov. 19 to friends, including Cantor Michael Zoosman of the Jewish Abolitionist Society, read [lightly edited for punctuation and paragraphs]:


First and far most, I want to thank ALL of you for your humanity, although our government has said I don’t deserve your compassion and that your reverence for my life and others in my position is misplaced, your presence and efforts have proven them wrong once again.

Love will always defeat hate! I have truly been humbled by your altruism and consistent commitment to abolishing the death penalty, to you spreading love, mercy, and the power of redemption.

It’s true that the death penalty murders people that have turned their lives around and developed attributes that if allowed, can thrive in any community and be assets.

If you’re a Christian, you must believe that Christ is the THE REDEEMER of all. As a practicing Muslim, I know the power of redemption, and Allah’s Mercy is for ALL.

I know it’s real and can be achieved by all that are willing to surrender to Higher Power. I’m living proof.

I want to thank the faith-based community for all your prayers and efforts. Please know that even when the government carries out its injustice that we’re standing on the side of victory and humanity and that is our victory.

The spirit of Love can never be killed when we choose to express it. My prayer is that on this we continue to grow stronger in faith and love.

Allah is Mercy! Please be at peace.

In love, Orlando Hall

The system failed

I am astounded by his faith in God. I am truly astonished by his transformation during those years of incarceration.

In another life, before he put himself under the control of the DOJ, this new Orlando could have been my friend and fellow member of the Inter-faith Council.

He could have been an honorary member of the Daughters of Abraham and joined Riem, Sister Paula, Sister Barbara and me in lively conversation.

He surely would be joining his large family this week around the Thanksgiving table. He might even be playing golf….

Abraham Bonowitz of deathpenaltyaction.org) suggests, write your members of Congress and find other action steps at this site: @deathpenaltyaction.

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