Barring any last minute stay of execution, the state will kill Michael Hall tonight for his part in abducting, torturing, and murdering Amy Robinson, a mentally challenged teenager.
The Robinson murder was a shocker in 1998 in Arlington, and it became even more of a media sensation because the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Dallas Morning News had opened newsrooms in Arlington in the mid-1990s and they were fighting it out to become that city’s No. 1 newspaper.
Current readers might not recall the old days when multiple newspapers operated in a single town, creating fierce rivalries and a spirit of competition that promoted excellent, or at least aggressive, journalism.
I worked in the Star-Telegram bureau back then — our managing editor put green Army helmets atop the reporters’ computer monitors as a constant reminder that we were in a newspaper war.
Hall and his accomplice, Robert Neville, were captured in Eagle Pass near the Mexico border not long after the murder, and the Star-T paid a pilot with a small plane to fly reporter Robert Tharp and photographer Ricky Moon to Eagle Pass to try to get an interview with the suspects.
“This was breaking news — there was a real effort to get down there quickly,” Tharp said. “We weren’t sure how long they would be down there.”
A half-dozen other reporters from North Texas made their way to the town as well, but there was a problem — the sheriff only allowed jail visitations on certain days of the week.
The reporters would have to wait at least two full days for an interview without even knowing if Hall and Neville would talk.
“Everybody else went home and we stuck it out,” Tharp recalled. “Most people thought they were going to get shipped back to Tarrant County a little more quickly than they did, and they didn’t see much likelihood that they were going to talk there in Eagle Pass.”
Tharp had jumped on the plane with nothing but the clothes on his back. Eventually he went to Wal-Mart in Eagle Pass and bought a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a change of clothes. But he kept angling for an interview.
“We were in and out of the sheriff’s office trying to get the interview and we finally did,” he said.
Tharp and Moon had the scoop, at least in print. A TV news reporter also stuck it out, and she too got an interview.
The suspects were without remorse.
“They were both pretty cavalier about it, shockingly so,” Tharp said. “I don’t think it had sunk in to [Hall] what he had done and the seriousness of it. One of the big quotes from that story was they talked about how much [Robinson] trusted them.”
Neville, executed in 2006, was the primary instigator in Robinson’s death, Tharp said.
Even today, there is still discussion on whether Hall is mentally competent enough to warrant a death sentence.
“They both claimed mental retardation as part of their defense but, of the two, Hall was the one where it seemed like a real issue,” Tharp said. “He was the one who went along with [the murder]. I don’t think it would have happened without Robert Neville.”
Tharp later went on to work at the Morning News, and is now a consultant with a Dallas-based public relations company.
Hall and Neville killed Robinson 13 years ago to the day. Tharp has married, changed careers, and fathered three children since then.
“I heard it on the radio this morning and it surprised me that [the execution] was coming up, and just to have it surface again after 13 years,” he said.