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Documents Reveal Confusion and Lack of Training in Texas Execution

As Texas seeks to execute Carl Buntion today and Melissa Lucio next week, it is worth reflecting on the grave and irreversible failures that occurred when the state executed Quintin Jones on May 19, 2021. For the first time in its history — and in violation of a federal court’s directive and the Texas Administrative Code — Texas excluded the media from witnessing the state’s execution of Quintin Jones. In the months that followed, Texas executed two additional people without providing any assurance that the underlying dysfunction causing errors at Mr. Jones’ execution were addressed. This is particularly concerning given that Texas has executed far more people than any other state and has botched numerous executions.

The First Amendment guarantees the public and the press have a right to observe executions. Media access to executions is a critical form of public oversight as the government exerts its power to end a human life. Consistent with Texas policy, two reporters travelled to the Huntsville Unit, where executions take place, to witness the execution of Mr. Jones in May 2021. The reporters waited across the street from the execution chamber, but Texas inexplicably excluded them from witnessing the execution.

Immediately after this fundamental and unconstitutional breakdown in procedure, Texas vowed to investigate what went wrong. The investigation resulted in the issuance of a perfunctory statement asserting without evidence that “extensive training” was conducted prior to the execution, but that issues still occurred. In June 2021, the ACLU submitted a request under the Texas Public Information Act for documents related to the errors at Mr. Jones’ execution and the investigation that followed. After six months of stonewalling during which time Texas executed two more people, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) released troubling new documents. These documents reveal a department woefully unprepared to carry out an execution, due to confusion and lack of training.

The documents describe interviews with staff who reported “a lot of unwritten procedures,” confusion about whether there were any written guidelines or protocols about executions, a lack of a “clear understanding of [their] role,” and staff who were “not trained.” An interview with one individual who appears to have participated in previous executions revealed that “to [his] knowledge, there are no written guidelines/protocols about the execution itself. He is aware of a document titled Execution Procedure-April 2021, however he stated he has not read it thoroughly.” Multiple documents describe a picture of confusion as a result of “all the changes,” including changes in the execution process. Taken together, these documents reveal a global lack of understanding about execution procedures generally.

The documents, which TDCJ tried for months to withhold, make clear that the department is not prepared to carry out another execution in line with Texas policy or the Constitution. While excluding media from an execution is easily noticeable, other errors may be less apparent. When the state makes a mistake in executing a person, those mistakes are unfixable and inexcusable. There is no room for error when the final moments of a person’s life are on the line.

There are countless reasons to oppose executions: the failure to protect innocent lives, the systemic racial bias in the application of the death penalty, and prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases are just a few examples. Mr. Buntion, scheduled to be executed today, is 78-years-old and has medical vulnerabilities. Ms. Lucio, scheduled to be executed next week, has a strong case for her innocence and has the support of her surviving children. The TDCJ should not move forward with these executions. Texas’ mismanagement in carrying out past executions is yet another reason the state should abandon the cruel practice of capital punishment.