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Texas Execution Stayed for 60 Days Over Coronavirus Outbreak Concerns

4 minute read

A execution previously scheduled for this week in Texas has been stayed for 60 days by the state’s Court of Appeals as a result of the coronavirus health crisis.

John Hummel, 44, was scheduled to be executed on Wednesday for the 2009 triple murder of his pregnant wife, his 5-year-old daughter and his father-in-law. Hummel was convicted in 2011. His attorney, Michael Mowla, requested an emergency supplement to a previously-filed motion to stay the execution on Friday in light of the coronavirus outbreak, arguing that people involved in the execution procedure could be at risk.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Texas has 67 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and one person has died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are usually multiple individuals present at an execution — including correctional officers, doctors, attorneys, priests, a religious representative (if requested by the inmate) and family members of both the victim(s) and the inmate. Though it is not clear who would have been present for Hummel’s planned execution, the Trump administration has asked that groups of more than 10 people do not congregate.

“Gathering all these people in one location presents a substantial risk of transmission of COVID-19/Coronavirus if anyone is infected,” Mowla argued in his petition.

Mowla added that Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s signing of a declaration of disaster in the state on March 13 has impacted the administration of Hummel’s execution. “COVID-19/Coronavirus is affecting every aspect of daily functioning—including in the criminal justice system. Each day, the number of people and systems affected increases,” Mowla said in the petition. (Specifically, he cited that social distancing and self-isolation guidelines as meaning Hummel would potentially miss out on visitation.)

In response to the emergency supplement, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson on Monday filed documents arguing that Hummel’s execution was not being impacted by the outbreak and that Mowla’s arguments otherwise constituted “speculation” only.

She wrote that there was no evidence to suggest that those involved in carrying Hummel’s execution would not be prepared to handle it safely.

“This Court should reject Hummel’s current request for a stay based on speculation given that, at this time, COVID-19 has raised no roadblock to his lawful execution,” Wilson said in the document. “Moreover, Hummel’s arguments in his emergency supplement do not affect the validity of his capital-murder conviction or death sentence for the brutal, premeditated murders of his family members.”

Mowla declined to comment on the case; Wilson did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.

While denying appeals Mowla had previously filed for Hummel, the Texas Court of Appeals decided to postpone the execution in a Monday afternoon decision “in light of the current health crisis and the enormous resources needed to address the execution.”

It’s unclear how the spread of the virus will impact other upcoming executions, though Thomas Scott Smith, the lawyer for Tracy Beatty, who is scheduled to be executed next week in Texas, said that he plans to file a motion asking for Beatty’s execution to be stayed on similar grounds, according to the Texas Tribune. Smith did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.

Two executions are currently planned in April in Texas, and a further two are scheduled in May. Tennessee has an execution planned for April 9th. Ohio also has two executions scheduled in April and another two scheduled in May. Missouri also has one execution planned for May.

Jeremy Desel, a spokesperson for The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told the Associated Press that they are prepared to carry out future executions and will be using the same screening process for execution witnesses that employees of the department have to use when entering the prison system.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice did not respond to TIME’s request for comment on the Court of Appeals’ ruling.

The screening process includes questions based on potential exposure to the coronavirus, according to the AP. Desel added that the death chamber at the state penitentiary is isolated from the rest of the prison. “It is thoroughly cleaned, consistently and constantly. We are taking precautions throughout the prison system,” Desel said.

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Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com