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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.”