A week before the election, John Wesley Hall was obsessed with the presidential race, so nervous, he said, that he'd gained weight from reckless nibbling. While being interviewed by a reporter, he kept an office TV set on, tuned to news coverage of the campaign. He spoke of moving to The Hague and practicing international law if John McCain won the presidency.
“The future of the Constitution is at stake,” Hall said. “McCain's already said he'd appoint Supreme Court justices who'd do away with Roe. [Roe v. Wade is the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.] A person with the kind of mindset to do away with Roe would limit the constitution in other ways too.” The Court has an excess of such judges already, he said. “Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Roberts — I call them the Death STAR, because of their initials.”
Hall's candidate won, of course. Shed of that stress, he's back to the daily grind — defending people whose lives and freedom are at risk. Among these is the infamous Tony Alamo, an evangelist (some say “cult leader”) whose ministry is headquartered in southwest Arkansas. Long known for noisy anti-Catholicism, among other things, Alamo faces multiple charges of transporting underage girls across state lines for sexual purposes. He was arrested in Arizona and jailed in Flagstaff when another lawyer referred him to Hall. Hall flew to Arizona to confer with him, and took the case. Alamo has been returned to Texarkana, where trial in federal court is scheduled for Feb. 2.
Hall has been a criminal-defense lawyer in Little Rock since 1979. Before that, he was an assistant prosecuting attorney. He's thrived in his chosen field, nationally recognized to the point that he's president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a participant — either at trial or on appeal — in many of the most celebrated criminal cases in Arkansas, an author whose books are read by other criminal lawyers (“Search and Seizure” and “Professional Responsibility in Criminal Defense Practice”). He's almost certainly the only Arkansas lawyer to represent an accused war criminal in Africa.
That would be the late Samuel Hinga Norman, tried along with two other defendants in a special court in Sierra Leone in 2004 on charges of violating the Geneva Conventions and other provisions of international humanitarian law. The others were convicted and sent to prison. Norman probably would have been, Hall said, if he hadn't died before the verdict was returned.
Hall spent 18 weeks in Africa, spread over a year's time, defending Norman, who'd once been head of the Sierra Leone military. The person employed as “principal defender” in the international court, an American from New York, called Hall after Norman had fired his original lawyer and the trial was about to begin. Norman boycotted the trial, protesting the court's authority, so Hall pled for him while the defendant stayed in his cell. Norman suffered from various health problems, was hospitalized, and died just after the closing arguments were completed.
Hall said that Norman didn't personally commit any of the acts of torture or murder alleged by the prosecution, but he was in command of people who did. There is no death penalty in international tribunals, incidentally.
The Norman case was a financial burden to him, Hall said — “I got paid, but not very well” — but he's glad he took it. Being in Sierra Leone was a broadening adventure — “It's supposedly the poorest country in the world per capita” — and he gained experience with an international tribunal. He's since tried other cases overseas, and in the process seen how very unpopular President Bush is there. “I think the economic situation will improve quicker with Bush out. People will have more confidence in America.”
He had no qualms about defending an accused war criminal, just as he has no reservations about winning an acquittal for a client that he knows is guilty.
It's the state's burden to prove guilt, Hall said, and the criminal justice system always gives the state the advantage at trial. Unlike some criminal lawyers, who say they don't know and don't want to know whether a defendant is guilty, Hall wants to know everything.
“Some lawyers do not want to know everything because they feel limited by the truth,” he wrote in a column on his website. “I strongly disagree. We are not the prosecutor, judge nor jury and we do not judge you; it is our duty to zealously represent the interests of our client, no matter how guilty they are or feel. The fact a client may be guilty is irrelevant to the quality and zealousness of the representation he or she receives from us.
“Therefore, we want to know everything there is to know about the facts and, believe it, we have heard almost everything there is to hear about all kinds of cases. Also, guilt is often a relative concept, and there could be defenses that limit the client's exposure or can even gain an acquittal. A good trial lawyer needs to know what is to be expected so he or she will not walk into any traps that could hurt the client in plea negotiations or before a jury.”
What a client tells his or her lawyer is always protected by ethical rules of confidentiality and the attorney-client privilege, Hall said. The rules are designed to encourage the free exchange of information between client and lawyer.
Hall was once subpoenaed to a federal court in Texas to give information about a client. He refused to testify, even when threatened with jail for contempt of court. Eventually, the subpoena was withdrawn.
Hall, now 60, moved with his family from upstate New York to Little Rock when he was 17. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from Hendrix College at Conway, and a law degree from the University of Arkansas Law School at Fayetteville.
Why law? Hall said that like many in his generation, he was influenced by “Perry Mason” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Both the TV series and the movie had lawyers for heroes; both were compelling, if unrealistic.
Almost wistfully, Hall noted that “Perry always had innocent clients.” In real life, representing the truly innocent is a heavy (if rare) burden. “The pressure on you is greater. You lose sleep before and during the trial.”
He doesn't win all his cases. He's watched two of his clients put to death at the state penitentiary. The defense lawyer is always invited to an execution, but some won't go. “I feel like it's a defense lawyer's obligation to be there at the end,” Hall said. “Sometimes at the end, their lawyer is the person they've had the most contact with.”
Predictably, he's opposed to capital punishment. “It's not a deterrent to anything. Texas averages about 100 executions a year, and they haven't deterred anything. There are other states, without the death penalty, that have lower crime rates and fewer homicides.” Also, he said, capital punishment is inherently racist. “Blacks are more likely than whites to be executed.” And finally, “The death penalty is erroneously applied too often, as proved in Illinois by its Commission on Capital Punishment.”
He expects better from the new administration. Last month, he won a postponement of a federal trial of Antoine Demetrius Baker, who's accused of murdering a witness against him in a robbery case. “It is a reasonable conclusion that the new president's Department of Justice will be less inclined to seek the death penalty,” Hall said in the motion. Similar motions are being filed by defense lawyers across America, he said. “They're calling it the Obama motion.” But he added that he began work on the motion before Obama's victory, figuring that even a McCain Justice Department would be better than Bush's Justice Department.
Hall's law office is in a converted old home in the Quapaw Quarter. Fittingly, for an expert on search and seizure, the doormat in front says “Come Back With A Warrant.” A big portrait of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall hangs on the wall of the office, painted by a Montreal friend of Hall's. Marshall and a colleague, the late Justice William Brennan, were two of Hall's idols. He said he's grateful that he got to argue a case in front of them. He thinks it unlikely, at his age, that he'll appear before the Supreme Court again. Considering the makeup of the present Court, including “the Death STAR,” and Hall's outspokenness, it may be just as well.
A portrait of another judge admired by Hall, the late U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Arnold of Little Rock, hangs in his office also. It was given by Arnold's brother, Appeals Court Judge Morris Arnold of Little Rock.
The new federal courthouse at Little Rock is named for Richard Arnold. One wonders what the incisive Arnold would have made of an on-going controversy over a metal sculpture in front of the courthouse. What Hall makes of it, in a column written for the NACDL journal, is that the expenditure of $391,000 on what he says looks like “a modernistic ballpark urinal” is outrageous, especially while the federal government skimps on funds to provide a fair trial for indigent criminal defendants. One hundred and thirty indigent defendants could be represented for the price of the sculpture, Hall wrote. “Who approved of that price tag? Is this the Halliburton of ‘no bid' courthouse construction projects?”
It has probably become clear that Hall is not a Republican. But he's represented the Republican Party in Arkansas, and rather well. (This was a non-criminal case, but for Hall it was probably much like representing a guilty defendant in a criminal trial. Despite his sins, you have to do your best for the client.) A few years back, the Republicans challenged a state law that required the political parties to pay for their own primaries. Much in the minority, and with much less money, the Republicans were placed at a considerable disadvantage by the law. In some counties, they could afford no more than one hard-to-reach polling place. The Republican state chairman at the time, former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a lawyer himself, called on Hall to argue that the state law was unconstitutional. Hall did so, and won his case before the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. Now, all the party primaries are publicly funded, and Republicans and Democrats vote at the same polling places. Even John McCain supporters are entitled to a defense.