Texas appellate court halts execution -- over coronavirus spread fears

The novel coronavirus met a novel defense theory — and lost, at least for now. An appeals court in Texas halted the execution tomorrow of a triple murderer in part over concerns that it might help spread COVID-19. Texas prison officials protested that they had already instituted a screening and cleaning process, but at least for now, the state’s death chamber is closed like bars and restaurants:

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus prompted the top Texas criminal appeals court on Monday to stay for 60 days the scheduled execution of a man condemned for killing his family. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected all grounds of John William Hummel’s appeal but said it would postpone the scheduled Wednesday execution “in light of the current health crisis and the enormous resources needed to address the execution.”

One of the issues that Michael Mowla, Hummel’s attorney, had raised in his efforts to stop the execution was a concern that the process involved with putting Hummel to death “may itself assist in spreading COVID-19.”

A number of people either take part or witness the execution in the death chamber at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, including correctional officers, attorneys, physicians and family members or friends of the inmate and of the victims.

“Gathering all these people in one location presents a substantial risk of transmission of COVID-19/Coronavirus if anyone is infected,” Mowla wrote in a petition to the appeals court last week.

Hummel stabbed his pregnant wife to death, and beat his father-in-law and five-year-old daughter to death with a baseball bat in 2009. He then torched the home to cover his tracks, unsuccessfully, of course.  The motive established at trial was that Hummel wanted to date a woman he met at a convenience store. Hummel was only convicted of killing his wife and father-in-law, but that was in 2011. The state of Texas has been waiting a while to carry out this sentence, and now it will have to wait a little longer.

Texas’ attorneys argued that the wait was unnecessary, with proper protocols in place to prevent any spread of the novel coronavirus:

Execution witnesses would have been subject to the same screening that department employees have to go through before entering a prison unit. The screening involves questions based on travel, potential exposure to the coronavirus and health inquiries, Desel said.

The death chamber is not a heavy traffic area and is completely isolated from all parts of the prison in Huntsville, Desel said.

“But it is thoroughly cleaned, consistently and constantly. We are taking precautions throughout the prison system,” he said.

I’m not a fan of the death penalty anyway, but this seems like a ridiculous argument. There’s a stronger argument that jails and holding cells pose a threat to COVID-19 community transmission, and prisons as well. Hummel and his jailers probably face a bigger threat from keeping him alive on death row. Should we cancel those penalties as a result? Send everyone home and hope they self-quarantine, including someone who annihilated his whole family just to flirt at a convenience store?

It’s clear that COVID-19 is a dangerous pandemic, and that it requires extraordinary precautions to keep the spread from accelerating ahead of resources to keep the rest of us alive. The process of the law should go on uninterrupted, however, especially when postponing it does nothing to reduce that risk.