After excluding reporters from death chamber in May, Texas prison officials vow to let media witness John Hummel execution

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Photo Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

“After excluding reporters from death chamber in May, Texas prison officials vow to let media witness John Hummel execution” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

THE TEXAS TRIBUNE — Texas plans to execute John Hummel Wednesday evening for the 2009 murders of his family members, but a civil liberties group is asking to delay the execution to ensure the Texas prison system does not repeat its controversial failure last month which kept the media out of the death chamber.

Hummel, 45, was sentenced to death by a Tarrant County jury in 2011 after the slayings of his pregnant wife, his 5-year-old daughter and his father-in-law at their Kennedale home. Police found their burned, beaten bodies in or near their beds after responding to an early morning fire, according to court records. Officials determined that they died by blunt-force injuries before the fire was set.

In his first interview with police, Hummel said he was at a store and not home at the time of the crime. But after he was later apprehended at the California-Mexico border, he confessed to stabbing and beating his wife before beating the other two victims and setting fire to his house, records show. Weapons later found in a dumpster matched his and the victims’ DNA, investigators said.

Hummel’s appeals — including a push last year to have the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office taken off his case because his defense attorney at trial had become a leader in the prosecutor’s office — have been denied.

Last week, however, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sought to stop his execution because prison officials failed to let reporters witness a May execution for the first time in the history of the state’s modern death penalty. Reporters for the Associated Press and the Huntsville Item, who attend every execution, were left waiting to be escorted from prison administrative offices across the street when Quinton Jones was killed.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has said excluding the onsite reporters was a mistake, and has assured media will be allowed to observe as the state wields its greatest power over life on Wednesday. The agency blamed new execution staff, a revised execution protocol and a lack of oversight, according to a TDCJ statement.

“A culmination of factors caused the incident which was preventable and inexcusable,” the department said in its statement last week. “The agency has since taken steps to address it to include administrative action involving multiple employees and building in redundancies to ensure that a similar incident does not happen again.”

Still, the ACLU of Texas has urged the agency’s executive director to ask the governor to postpone Hummel’s execution by 30 days to further address the problem.

“These events were of major concern to the media, the public, and the ACLU,” the letter stated. “TDCJ broke its own protocols and carried out an unconstitutional execution.”

Nationwide, reporters have served as watchdogs in botched executions in states that struggle to find lethal injection drugs as capital punishment’s popularity wanes. And Texas media reports often provide detail excluded from agency accounts of executions — like prisoners describing a burning sensation after lethal drugs are injected in their veins.

“Due to TDCJ’s failures, the public will never have a media account of the execution of Mr. Jones last month,” the ACLU of Texas wrote.

Jeremy Desel, a prison spokesperson, said Tuesday that the agency’s leader, Bryan Collier, did not ask the governor to delay Hummel’s execution.

TDCJ said it had since enhanced staff training on execution processes and added an agency director to oversee them. The agency also said employees had been disciplined, but Desel said Tuesday he did not know details on the type of discipline or how many employees were punished.

Hummel’s execution, originally set for last March, was the first in the state to be taken off the calendar because of the coronavirus pandemic. Texas has executed two people in the pandemic — Billy Wardlow last July and Jones last month. That’s an exceptionally low number for Texas, which leads the nation by far in executions. Aside from Hummel, four other men’s executions were halted because of public health concerns.

So far, four other men are scheduled to be executed in Texas in 2021. Only one other execution in the nation is scheduled for 2021, in Nevada, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune here.

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