What’s a Comedy Central “Roast” Doing at the Supreme Court?

Without a doubt, comedy is a big deal these days in our society, especially in our pop culture, and when done smartly at an appropriate forum, the jokes can mean a lot of money, but when done in a certain way at certain places, they can also be a deadly serious affair that can wind up in front of the judges at the US Supreme Court. Not least when it involves a Comedy Central roast featuring the famous and talented insult comic Jeff Ross and a murder trial in a red state like Texas. And, under the circumstances of this case, the crucial question that pops up is whether an apparent joke is still just a joke or perhaps something rather dark and incriminating. But first, here is some background to all this:

In 2011, a Texas man named Gabriel Hall murdered an elderly man and badly injured his wheelchair-bound wife in College Station, Texas. In 2015 while Hall awaited his murder trial, comedian Jeff Ross visited the jail house where he and other inmates were being held and over some days Ross filmed a special for Comedy Central titled “Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live at Brazos County Jail”. Ross claimed he was there because he was a believer in second chances and that he wanted to see if the inmates at the jailhouse had a sense of humor about their situation. Among the inmates Ross spoke to was Hall and although his talk with Hall was not ultimately included in the special when it aired, the prosecutors in Hall’s trial nonetheless subpoenaed the footage of Ross’s conversation with Hall and played it for the jury during the sentencing phase of Hall’s trial following his conviction a few months later. The prosecutors aimed to use the footage to persuade the jury that Hall had shown no remorse for his crime; as a result, the jury sentenced Hall to death.  In the footage, Ross asked Hall what he was in for, whether he had hacked somebody’s computer? Hall joked that he took a machete to someone’s screen. Ross then remarked that Hall looked like “a fuckin’ scary dude,” to which Hall said: “Oh, come on, I wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Then, Ross said: “What about a human?” And Hall replied: “Ah, they’re annoying.” The banter also included Ross making some derogatory comments about Hall’s Asian heritage.      

Well, Hall’s lawyers have challenged the use of the footage in securing the death sentence, claiming that it gave a rather misleading portrayal of Hall and his true feelings in a situation where Hall was just playing along with a comedian and nothing more. Even more significant, Hall’s lawyers have also hitched their wagons to the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel provision, claiming that the comedian’s interactions with Hall, which generated the footage, was permitted by the jail house authorities without the presence of Hall’s attorneys and was therefore unconstitutional.

So, now we are dealing with at least two main issues here: the right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment plus the question of whether the content of the footage was just a guy playing along with a comedian or whether it was something else more sinister, as in, somebody who showed no remorse for murder.  First, the Sixth Amendment. Under the law here, anyone charged with a crime is given the right to have their lawyer present during what is known as “critical stages” of the process, meaning that this right usually comes into being even before things start happening inside the courtroom in front of a jury and so on. To explain it more simply, once a guy is arrested by the cops and is informed that they have a right to a lawyer, most ordinary folks do understand that to be the beginning of the person’s journey through the criminal justice process, and that is therefore a “critical stage” of things. The basic idea here is to protect the person in custody against unfair oppression by the government authorities.

But our situation here with Jeff Ross and Gabriel Hall is rather interesting in one obvious way: most ordinary folks can also appreciate the fact that someone bantering with a comedian, even inside a jail house, stands on a rather different footing when it comes to the right to counsel than, say, someone being interrogated by a cop in the same situation. Unlike a comedian, a cop ain’t joking around with the guy in custody, rather he is usually trying to get information about a crime, something that could doom that guy at his trial. Well, let’s just say the difference in the two situations is pretty clear and this is where Hall’s legal team has a genuine problem when it comes to their big argument about the Sixth Amendment. And this is a heavy lift, for sure.

By comparison, the lawyers seem to have a less heavy lift when it comes to whether the footage shown to the jury reflected Hall’s true feelings, as in, remorse or no remorse for his crime, or if it was just a guy playing along with a comedian. Again, most ordinary folks would understand that a guy sitting down somewhere and doing a back and forth with someone he knows is a comedian probably isn’t expecting such information to land in front of a jury that is deciding his guilt or innocence let alone a jury that is deciding whether he should live or die.         

So far, the efforts of Hall’s lawyers to shoot down his death sentence have tanked on appeal before the Texas courts, and they have decided to seek another bite at the apple at the Supreme Court of the United States. Only time will tell if they’ll find success with this move. And it likely won’t be long before we see how the Supreme Court processes the subject of humor in the criminal justice system. And, of course, it’ll also give us a window into the high court’s own sense of humor.

**Editor’s Note: The new book “Comedy Goes to Court: When People Stop Laughing and Start Fighting“, is now available on Amazon and at bookstores. Go get your own copy of the new bestselling book today and, of course, enjoy the read!