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Court denies request to test cord used to strangle woman for additional DNA

A request to test an electrical cord used to strangle a woman in 2002 for additional DNA has been denied by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which agreed with a lower court’s ruling against an El Paso gang member on death row.

The decision was handed down on January 30, 2019, court documents state.

In 2005, a jury convicted Justen Grant Hall of Capital Murder for strangling Melanie Billhartz with an electrical cord and ordering her fingers be chopped off with a machete. The jury sentenced Hall to death.

The Office of Capital and Forensic Writs (OCFW), on behalf of Hall, was seeking DNA testing on the power cord wrapped around Bilhartz’s neck. Court documents state the OCFW said the cord could be analyzed for touch DNA, and that such analysis could show someone else committed the murder. The OCFW argued DNA results implicating a third party could be sufficient to create a greater than 50 percent likelihood that the jury would not have convicted, but acknowledged that other factors could negate such a conclusion.

Court documents state evidence showed Billhartz was killed after an argument that escalated to an assault. Court records showed Hall and fellow Aryan Circle gang members feared their house, where methamphetamines were known to be cooked, would be identified after Billhartz threatened to call police to report the assault on her.

El Paso officers, with help from the Dona Ana County Sheriff’s Department, located Billhartz’s decomposing body in a shallow grave in the New Mexico desert on November 23, 2002. They were led to the body by the man who allegedly assaulted Billhartz. The man told them Hall killed Billhartz and ordered him to bury the body and cut off the woman’s fingers. On November 25, 2002, Hall allegedly confessed to murdering Billhartz.

Writing for the majority of the state’s court of criminal appeals, presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote that even if another person’s DNA were found on the power cord, the evidence at trial would still strongly implicate Hall for the murder of Billhartz. “Appellant’s confession to both law enforcement tie him to the murder. His knowledge of details matching the victim’s body show that he would have at least been involved in the body’s disposition, and the effective communication of these details to police supports the other evidence that Appellant was of sound mind at the times he confessed and that the confessions were in fact true,” Keller wrote.

A court document states Hall was present, via teleconference, during a March 2017 court hearing on the OCFW’s DNA motion on his behalf. The same document states that when asked about his thoughts on the DNA motion, Hall stated, “It’s just a waste. It’s going to be a waste of the Court’s time to even pursue it.” Hall, court documents show, subsequently elaborated, “I mean, it’s just going to be a waste of the Court’s time, you know, because my DNA is going to be on there. And if it’s not, you know, then it’s by some miracle. But, you know, that’s the murder weapon I used to kill Melanie.”

According to the Texas Tribune’s “Faces of Death Row” archive, Hall is now 37 years old and has been on death row 13 years and nine months. ABC-7 reached out to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and learned no execution date has been scheduled for Hall.

In a November 2002 article, The Plainview Daily Herald reported, that at the time of his arrest for the Billhartz murder, Hall was free on $75,000 bond after being charged with first-degree murder in the death of Hector Arturo “Arlene” Diaz, 28, a transgender woman from Sunland Park. The body of Diaz, shot in the torso, was found April 10, 2002 on the side of a road just inside El Paso’s city limits, the newspaper reports. In a May 1, 2002 article, The El Paso Times reported El Paso Police believed the killing of Diaz was motivated by prejudice over Diaz’s sexual orientation.

Court documents state, that during the discussion regarding the DNA motion, Hall told the court, “I killed Melanie and I killed Arturo. And I accept the punishment for it, and I’m ready to get it over with, you know.”

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