A team of Texas defense lawyers are petitioning the Supreme Court to review a capital punishment case on the grounds that a lower court used nonconsensually filmed footage from Jeff Ross’s 2015 Comedy Central special — Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live at Brazos County Jail — to sentence their client to death.
The lawyers are representing Gabriel Hall, a 28-year-old Texas man convicted in 2015 of the murder of a man named Edwin Shaar Jr. four years earlier. Shortly before Hall’s conviction, the comedian Jeff Ross — the club comic known as the “Roastmaster General” for emceeing events in which celebrities make fun of other celebrities — taped a special for Comedy Central at the Brazos County Detention Center in Bryan, TX, where Hall was awaiting trial.
Hall’s attorneys claim in their filing to the Supreme Court that they sent the Brazos County Sheriff a letter of “no-contact” — meaning they asked him to forbid anyone from contacting Hall without their permission. But on Feb. 26, 2015, Ross evidently spoke to Hall on tape for more than 17 minutes. According to the court documents, Ross approached a table where Hall was sitting with friends and proceeded to have a “wide-ranging conversation” in which Ross “repeatedly mocked” Hall’s appearance and “made crass jokes about his race.” Subsequently, the Texas court’s decision to put Hall to death used that footage to claim he evinced “a lack of remorse for having committed capital murder.”
According to the appeals decision, a jail administrator contacted Comedy Central immediately after learning Ross had spoken to Hall, asking that “that any recording of any interaction with Mr. Hall be omitted from use in any future manner,” and warning that any use of the tape “could have an adverse impact” on his trial. He also asked for copies of the footage and provided them to both the prosecutors and Hall’s defense team.
Hall’s lawyers filed a motion to suppress the video from being entered into evidence. Prosecutors claimed Hall had signed a release form prior to their conversation, but Hall maintains that he wasn’t offered the release until after he and Ross had already spoken without his lawyers present. But the State got a partially redacted version approved, and the decision cites from a transcript of Ross’s footage several times. In one passage, it claims this exchange shows Hall considered his crime “petty” (Ed. Note: “APPELLANT” here is Hall):
ROSS: They have the death penalty in Texas. This is a scary state.
OTHER INMATE: Yeah.
OTHER INMATE: They’re not bashful about giving it out, either.
APPELLANT: Yeah, they’ll, uh, they’ll hang you for the, they’ll hang you for—well, they, they’ll basically, screw you over, over the most, uh, petty shit, so.
In another, the court claimed Hall joking with Ross — a comedian filming a comedy special — indicated he was “making light of his crime:”
ROSS: . . . What are you in here for?
APPELLANT: Ah . . .
ROSS: Hacking somebody’s computer?
APPELLANT: Something like that, yes.
OTHER INMATE: “Hacking” being the operative word.
APPELLANT: Yeah. Yeah, used a machete on someone’s screen, so.
And in a third, the court claimed Hall’s jokes — again, while speaking to a comedian using incarcerated guys and their alleged crimes for laughs — betrayed a “disregard for human life.”
ROSS: He [pointing at Appellant] seems like a [expletive] scary dude, I don’t know what it is, man.
APPELLANT: Oh come on, I wouldn’t hurt a fly.
ROSS: What’s that?
APPELLANT: I wouldn’t hurt a fly
ROSS: Really? What about a human?
APPELLANT: Eh, they’re annoying. We’ll leave ’em to their own devices, so.
The court of criminal appeals upheld Hall’s sentence, arguing that use of this footage did not violate Hall’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel, even though the special was filmed without his attorneys present. Neither Hall’s lawyers nor representatives for Ross immediately responded to our requests for comment.