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My client atoned for his sin but the Trump Administration killed him anyway

Marcy Widder is a capital defence attorney based in Atlanta, Georgia

On November 19, my longtime client and friend Orlando Hall became the eighth prisoner executed by the Trump Administration since mid-July, when the Federal Government resumed executions after a 17-year hiatus. News stories naturally focused on the horror of his crime. It's much easier to kill people when they seem somehow other: a bug to be squashed, trash to be tossed away. Regular folks on the jury, in the community, want to believe such crimes are committed by monsters, who must be dealt with accordingly.

The crime tells only part of the story. The other part of the story — the one I got to know intimately, as I represented Orlando in his efforts to vacate his death sentence and serve out his life in a federal penitentiary — was about his redemption. That, too, deserves to be told.

Orlando was my first real client. In February 1997, when I was just a couple of years out of law school, a former mentor, Neal Walker, asked whether I'd be willing to help on a federal death sentence appeal. I readily agreed, without knowing much about the case or client, or pretty much anything about the federal death penalty. After a nearly fatal car accident left Neal unable to lead Orlando's defence, I had to step up as lead counsel. The brief I filed for Orlando was the first I'd written mostly on my own; representing him before the 5th Circuit, in Houston, I made my first oral argument. My first visit to death row followed the next day. I forgot the jacket I'd thought would make me look vaguely professional back at the hotel and arrived haplessly dressed in a sleeveless shirt. Such clothing, I soon learnt, was strictly prohibited. So, for my first meeting with Orlando, I wore a prison-issued yellow plastic smock to cover my exposed arms.

Though we'd never spoken before, we were not strangers: Orlando and I had already grown acquainted through dozens of letters. His, though riddled with grammatical errors and misspellings, were always positive, kind, respectful and inquisitive — about his situation, about our lives, about the world. In his first Christmas card to me, in 1997, he'd wished me "moments of pure contentment in the coming year".

Over the years, I witnessed how hard Orlando worked to be a good, supportive, always-present father to his children, even behind bars, through regular letters, phone calls and, eventually, e-mails. He wanted to help guide them through the minefields of their young lives; we talked about how to help light their way. Orlando also always strove to better himself: All the books he'd read in his tiny prison cell had made him an "international cat of the world," he told me once. Knowing Dostoevsky was one of my favourite authors, Orlando struggled through all of "Crime and Punishment." He later said I was probably the only person for whom he would have read it all the way to the end.

The man Orlando became behind bars bore little resemblance to the feckless hothead who, together with four other immature and angry young men, committed a terrible crime that none would have carried out alone. If, by some miracle, he could have been released from prison, I would have offered him a room in my house and helped him find a job. Had Orlando been given the chance to live, I have no doubt he would have spent his remaining days as he'd spent his almost 25 years on death row: living a life of humility and respect, grateful for the opportunity to continue giving to others and helping his family cope with the challenges they encountered.

That transformation was driven by a deep, honest recognition of the guilt he carried for Lisa Rene's tragic death. Orlando, early on, owned up for his responsibility in her murder. He turned himself in and confessed. He urged his baby brother to come clean, even at his own expense. (His brother later testified against him.) At trial, he sought to express remorse in a few sentences he wrote on a piece of paper he gave to his attorneys - words that, because of his trial attorneys' ineptitude, the jury never heard:

"I want to apologise to my family and ask them to forgive me, and I hope somehow they can forgive me. I want to apologise to Lisa Rene's family and ask them to forgive me, even though I know that there is no possible way they can forgive me and I understand that. I want to ask God to forgive me, however, I question in my own mind whether even God can forgive me."

Since becoming Orlando's attorney, I have devoted my career to representing people on death row. Nothing I have experienced as a lawyer, even with other clients lost to execution, prepared me for the cruelty and depravity of the Trump administration's relentless campaign to carry out an unprecedented execution spree in its waning days, as the coronavirus has hampered attorneys' efforts to aid their clients.

When the administration scheduled Orlando's execution, I had to choose. I could meet my professional obligations by travelling to see him and members of his family, and by conducting additional in-person interviews with previously unavailable witnesses in multiple states (including Orlando's now-released co-defendants) - work essential to developing a compelling clemency petition, and perhaps forming the basis for further judicial proceedings. Or I could forgo this critical work because undertaking it amid a pandemic could orphan my minor child or, worse, put her at risk for serious illness or death. That my choice was a no-brainer did not make it any more bearable. That Orlando understood and supported my choice will never ease the pain of making it. It broke my heart that I could not be there for him in the end.

During my last, short phone call with Orlando, moments before he was taken away to be strapped to a gurney and killed, when he knew there was no chance of reprieve, he told me he hoped the prisoners left behind him would not suffer his fate. But, this past week, the Trump administration carried out two more executions (both, like Orlando's, of Black men sentenced to death by Texas federal juries); three more are scheduled to take place before President Donald Trump leaves office. Before this summer, the federal government had not executed a prisoner in almost two decades. Experts say that no president has carried out the death penalty during a lame-duck period in more than a century. This administration may carry out as many as 13 executions in the span of six months — six in the weeks between Election Day and the inauguration - even as this year has seen the lowest number of state executions since 1983.

On the day of his execution, Orlando wrote a letter to my co-counsel and me, which we received many days later. In it, he wished us peace and said that he was leaving knowing he loved and was loved. "We fought a good fight for over 25 years. To be of sound mind after all this time and to still care is favour," he wrote. "Your efforts gave me time to get right with life." Orlando's words are a reminder that, regardless of the political climate, the death penalty always reduces people to their very worst moments - and it disregards, wholesale, the possibility of their redemption.

Marcy Widder is a capital defence attorney based in Atlanta, Georgia

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Published December 15, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 14, 2020 at 6:27 pm)

My client atoned for his sin but the Trump Administration killed him anyway

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