Texas executes Justen Hall for murder of woman in El Paso


Hall told a trial judge he needed "to be put down" in 2016. Lawyers questioned his mental health and asked an El Paso court to delay the execution until Hall's competency can be evaluated.

Justen Hall is scheduled for execution on Wednesday. Jenevieve Robbins for Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Texas executes Justen Hall for murder of woman in El Paso” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texas executed a 38-year-old man on Wednesday night for the 2002 slaying of a woman in El Paso.

Justen Hall was the eighth person executed in Texas in 2019. Just after 6 p.m., he was strapped to a gurney in the Huntsville execution chamber. Hall, identified in court documents as a district captain of a white nationalist gang, was convicted in the strangling of Melanie Billhartz in El Paso.

Billhartz’s cousin, Cameron Rountree, along with Hall’s mother and half-sister watched from the viewing room as Hall was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital at 6:13 p.m. He was pronounced dead at 6:32 p.m.

In his final statement, Hall said he wanted to address Billhartz’s relatives and “apologize for the pain and suffering” he caused.

“And to my mom and Morelia I love you and I’m going to miss you all,” he said. “I’m ready.”

Hall killed Billhartz while he out on bond from a previous murder charge, according to media reports. Newspaper articles identified that previous murder victim as Arlene Diaz. During a 2017 court hearing, Hall admitted to killing Diaz.

“And to the Diaz’s family that I had to put you through this, it should have never happened,” Hall said shortly before his death Wednesday, according to prison officials.

Hall’s lawyers filed a motion last month asking an El Paso court to push back Hall’s execution date until experts can evaluate his competency. The motion stated Hall refused contact with counsel for at least two years and argued that signaled a drastic decline in his already troubled mental state.

Hall stated he was competent to represent himself — and two doctors agreed in 2017. He asked courts to waive his appeals and schedule an execution date.

“I do not like the person I have become, and I need to be put down like the rabid dog that I am,” he wrote to a trial judge on Oct. 6, 2016.

But Hall’s attorneys have questioned his competency, pointing to a history of delusion, paranoia and suicidal behavior. In January, a court ruled against reconsidering Hall’s competency.

“Mr. Hall’s campaign to drop all appeals and cut off all communication with his counsel for the past two and a half years further confirms that he is being driven by his paranoid delusions to seek to use the State’s power to facilitate his own self-destruction,” the attorneys wrote in their motion to an El Paso district court.

El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza said in a statement that Hall has confessed to two separate murders and “demonstrated that, if given the opportunity, he will commit acts of violence that constitute a continuing threat to society.”

On Oct. 28, 2002, Billhartz and Ted Murgatroyd, an alleged gang prospect, got into an argument near a drug house, according to court documents. After Billhartz threatened to call the police — drawing authorities to the gang’s meth lab — she disappeared with Hall in her truck. Murgatroyd said Hall came back hours later with Billhartz’s body in the back of the cab, according to court records. Hall told Murgatroyd to get a shovel and machete to bury Billhartz. The two drove to New Mexico, where Hall told Murgatroyd to cut off the victim’s fingers to prevent DNA from being found before dumping Billhartz’s body, records state.

Weeks later, Murgatroyd led investigators to the body. Hall, then 21, was arrested later that day and confessed to the killing on Nov. 25, 2002.

He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2005.

In 2013, the Texas state defender’s Office of Capital and Forensic Writs filed a motion asking for “touch” DNA testing on the electrical cord used to strangle Billhartz. Attorneys argued the new evidence could “show that someone other than [Hall] used the ligature to strangle the victim.” They contended that Hall’s confession “should be viewed in light of his mental state at the time” and alleged a lack of concrete evidence tying Hall to the crime scene.

The motion prompted a battle between Hall and his attorneys. In 2016, Hall filed two motions on his own to withdraw the state defenders’ DNA testing motion and to set an execution date.

“These walls 24/7 have broken me. It is taking every last ounce of will to even make it from day to day,” Hall wrote.

That December, he told the trial court he would not file any more appeals or motions, and that anything filed on his behalf “should be disregarded.”

At a hearing the following spring, Hall’s attorneys told the court their client had attempted suicide in November 2016 and that his psychiatric health was worsening. Hall said a test would reveal his DNA on the electrical cord, adding that he was competent to represent himself.

The trial court denied the DNA testing motion and ordered Hall to be reevaluated for competency. Two doctors determined Hall was competent enough to waive representation.

After his attorneys appealed the denial, Hall filed a declaration stating he wished to waive any further appeals and have his sentence carried out. He admitted his guilt and added that the DNA motion was a “stall tactic.”

The Court of Criminal Appeals in January upheld the trial court’s decision to deny DNA testing and ruled against reconsidering Hall’s competency.

Seven other executions are scheduled in Texas through April.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/11/06/texas-death-row-inmate-justen-hall-execution-scheduled/.

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