Original article no longer available
The Roanoke Times, (VA)
July 15, 1992
Author: LAURENCE HAMMACK STAFF WRITER
Willard C. Hall listened impassively to his wife’s dying words.
“Please help me,” Phyllis Jean Hall screamed to a 911 dispatcher. “I’ve been shot.”
A recording of the telephone call was played Tuesday in Roanoke County Circuit Court, where Hall sat expressionless after pleading no contest to charges of killing his estranged wife in December after she tried to divorce him.
In one of the rare murder cases in which a court hears from the victim, Judge G.O. Clemens convicted Hall, 54, of first-degree murder after listening to the tape.
For nearly 10 minutes on the morning of Dec. 4, Phyllis Hall talked on the telephone to a police dispatcher as she lay bleeding on her bedroom floor. The dispatcher kept Hall – panic-stricken and in obvious pain – on the line while police and rescue workers sped to her home in the Hollins area of the county.
“Please, help me,” she often repeated. The dispatcher tried to keep her calm while alternately pressing for details of the crime, having Hall describe how her husband used a pistol to shoot her four times in the back, neck and face.
“He wanted me to turn around and face him so he could shoot me in the face,” she said. “But then he shot me in the back.”
The call ended when a police officer arrived at Hall’s side and hung up the telephone. Rescue workers rushed Hall, 46, to Roanoke Memorial Hospital, where she died a few hours later.
Willard Hall, meanwhile, had fled in his pickup truck to a daughter’s home. He knocked on the door and announced: “I shot your Mom,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Skip Burkart said.
He then sat down, lit a cigarette and waited for police to come arrest him. `Spousal homicide syndrome’
In court Tuesday, Hall showed no trace of emotion as he listened to his wife’s dying declaration. His attorney, however, said the former foundry worker was so remorseful that he recently attempted suicide while in jail.
Hall did not testify Tuesday. He will be sentenced later, and faces a maximum punishment of life in prison.
With Hall’s no-contest pleas to murder and use of a firearm, Tuesday’s hearing focused on whether he was guilty of first-degree, premeditated murder or a lesser charge of second-degree murder .
Defense attorney Vincent Lilley had argued that Hall could not plan the killing because he suffered from what a psychiatrist testifying for the defense called “spousal homicide syndrome.”
Psychiatrist Robert Showalter testified that Hall fit all the symptoms of the “syndrome,” which is not recognized by the psychiatric profession. He was a man of relatively low intelligence and verbal skills married to a woman who was more outspoken and controlling.
“The heart of this kind of relationship is what we call a dependance relationship,” Showalter testified. “The scales tip very heavily to female dominance.”
But many women often become become tired of their role. “In some cases, it’s almost like having a child to look after,” Showalter said.
Whatever the reason, Phyllis Hall filed for a divorce in spring of 1991 and obtained an injunction forcing her husband of 29 years from their house on Summer View Drive. Divorce papers filed in Roanoke County Circuit Court say the reason was Willard Hall’s drinking and abusive behavior toward his wife.
But Showalter testified that the Hall’s marital problems also fit his theory of spousal homicide syndrome.
As the wife appears to be withdrawing her affections in such cases, he said, the husband becomes increasingly frustrated and, eventually, violent.
“It’s obvious that this syndrome has an extremely paradoxical nature,” Showalter testified. “The aggrieved spouse is in fact destroying the thing that he cares about the most.”
Showalter challenged the theory that Hall could have premeditated a murder, given his mental condition at the time and the fact that he had quit taking an anti-depressant drug at his wife’s urging.
But under cross-examination from Burkart, he admitted that the spousal homicide syndrome has yet to be recognized by the psychiatric community or the courts.
Burkart characterized the theory as a “pet diagnosis” that Showalter has researched for years and applied to the facts of this case.
There are many domestic disputes in which people become as depressed as Willard Hall was, the prosecutor said. “But they don’t end up in murder .”
`Glimmer of reconciliation’
Even after the divorce papers were filed in May of last year, Willard and Phyllis Hall continued to see each other regularly.
Every morning at 8, he stopped by for a cup of coffee on his way to work.
The conversation was not always pleasant. She recently had quit driving a school bus and had become a courier; he suspected that her new job may have led to an affair that was behind the divorce.
Still, Hall repeatedly begged his wife to take him back. At first she refused, but later said she might if Hall would quit drinking.
Hall stopped drinking, Lilley said, only to be told then that he also would have to quit talking about his suspicions of an affair.
He again obeyed, Lilley said. At that point, “there was some glimmer of reconciliation,” Showalter testified.
Phyllis Hall then ordered her husband to stop taking an anti-depressant a doctor had prescribed to help him deal with the marital problems, Lilley said.
Again, Hall met his wife’s conditions. But the abrupt halt in medication in late November may have helped set the stage for what happened next, Lilley said.
Showalter testified that by suddenly going off the medication, Hall probably experienced a “rebounding” of intense depression.
The morning of Dec. 4 started off like all the others, with Hall’s stopping by to visit his estranged wife. But a discussion of their marriage apparently became more heated than others, according to the brief statement Hall gave to police.
Hall admitted that he lost his temper after his wife called him a name, and that he went to his truck to retrieve a gun, returned to the house and shot her.
Based on blood splatters found on a newspaper, authorities believe the first shot was fired in the kitchen, Burkart said. Phyllis Hall then apparently ran to the bedroom and was shot three more times.
In urging the judge to dismiss arguments of second-degree murder, spousal homicide syndrome and other mitigating factors, Burkart pointed to a statement that he said showed Hall’s true state of mind.
“I got pissed off,” Hall told police, “and I shot her.”
Record Number: 9207150140
Copyright (c) 1992 The Roanoke Times