Local lawmakers respond to Texas execution error

El Paso News

FILE – This March 22, 1995, file photo shows the interior of the execution chamber in the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. Executioners who put 13 inmates to death in the last months of the Trump administration likened the process of dying by lethal injection to falling asleep, called gurneys “beds” and final breaths “snores.” But those tranquil accounts are at odds with AP and other media-witness reports of how prisoners’ stomachs rolled, shook and shuddered as the pentobarbital took effect inside the U.S. penitentiary death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana. (AP Photo/Chuck Robinson, File)

El Paso, Texas (KTSM) — If members of the media aren’t present for crucial events of public interest, where is the watchdog?

On Wednesday, the execution of a man convicted of beating his elderly aunt to death occurred without the presence of reporters to document the process.

Members from the El Paso delegation of the Texas Legislature are outraged over a serious error that occurred during the execution of Quinton Jones. Jones was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville for the September 1999 killing of his aunt, Berthena Bryant.

Media witnesses were not in attendance for the execution because officials from the prison agency failed to notify reporters.

Jeremy Desel, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, did not receive a call from Huntsville Unit Prison to include journalists from The Associated Press and The Huntsville Item.

“The Texas Department of Criminal Justice can only apologize for this error and nothing like this will ever happen again,” he said.

Jones’ execution was the first in Texas in almost a year and Desel said it included new personnel unfamiliar with the process.

“Somewhere in that mix, there was never a phone call made to this office for me to accompany the witnesses across the street into the Huntsville Unit,” Desel said.

Legislators say that’s unacceptable. 

“There really isn’t any explanation that’s satisfactory for why the media was excluded from the execution of Quintin Jones. Nothing the government does should happen in the dark, least of all something as grave as the taking of a life,” Joe Moody, Speaker Pro Tempore of the Texas House of Representatives, told KTSM 9 News.

All 570 executions in Texas since 1982 have included at least one media witness.

“I’ve always said that human error — whether it’s on the street or in a court or at the death chamber itself — is one of the main reasons the state should never be involved in killing a human being. If we can’t even get this right, how can we be confident in anything related to the death penalty?” asked Moody.

According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, states that impose the death penalty are at an impasse because two of the three drugs used are becoming more difficult to obtain due to export restrictions.

Shortages of sodium thiopental and pentobarbital, anesthetics used for lethal injection, have been discontinued or produced limitedly because of the European Union’s outlawing of the death penalty.

The anesthetics that cause the prisoner to become unconscious are limited, causing prisons to concoct alternative protocols that defense attorneys and doctors argue are not Constitutional. It’s the role of reporters to attest to whether a prisoner experienced cruel and unusual punishment during execution. 

Media presence at execution is not intended to determine the appropriateness of the death penalty, but rather to address questions of public interest:

  • What were the last words?
  • Who was in attendance?
  • How long until the prisoner was pronounced dead?
  • Did anything go wrong?
  • Was there any suffering?
  • What are the legal issues?
  • What are the humanitarian issues?

In 2008, Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer wrote about physician participation in execution after witnessing a botched execution.

Gawande is in the unique position to provide perspective as both a physician and reporter. 

“We have no idea what the error rate is, because there is no oversight, there is no public reporting. And the information [I] hear worries me,” said Dr. David Waisel, an anesthesiologist who joined Gawande in a roundtable discussion in 2008 over issues raised in the Baze v. Rees case before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The case sought answers to whether the three-drug protocol (the two anesthetics and potassium chloride) used in execution are effective after reports of a 5-percent execution failure rate reported in states like Kentucky and botched executions in Missouri.

Back in Texas, prison officials reported no complications with Jones’ execution.

Texas leads the nation in capital punishment and has performed the fewest executions in almost 25 years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The death penalty has no place in a just society,” says State Senator Cesar J. Blanco. “The state’s lack of transparency about the scheduled execution is disturbing. Texas can and should be better than this.”

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