The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday halted an execution set for this week due to the new coronavirus.
The state’s high criminal court ordered that Wednesday’s execution, set for 44-year-old John Hummel, should be delayed “in light of the current health crisis and the enormous resources needed to address that emergency.” The stay is in place for 60 days, after which the county can move to set a new execution date.
Hummel’s lawyer requested a stay of execution in a unique court filing Friday because of the spread of COVID-19 and the state's disaster declaration, arguing that the disease has impacted his ability to carry out last-minute investigations. He also said the execution procedure, which crowds family members, the media and officials into small viewing rooms, puts vulnerable prisons at risk of exposure.
But Tarrant County officials opposed the request, claiming it was speculative and should not prevent Hummel’s execution for the “heinous, brutal, and calculated murders of his family members.”
Hummel was sentenced to death by a Tarrant County jury in 2011 after the 2009 murders of his pregnant wife, his 5-year-old daughter and his father-in-law. Police found their burned, beaten bodies after responding to a fire at their home in the early morning, according to court records. Officials determined that they died by blunt-force injuries in or near their beds before the fire was set.
In his first interview with police, Hummel said he had gone to the store and was not home at the time of the crime, but he later confessed to stabbing and beating his wife before beating the other two and setting fire to his house, records show.
The court’s decision Monday was not the first time an execution has been stopped because of state or national emergencies. In Hummel’s filing, his attorney pointed to former Gov. Rick Perry granting a 30-day reprieve for an execution scheduled on Sept. 11, 2001. A Bexar County court also withdrew an execution date shortly after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 because the defense attorney lived in Harris County.
There are seven other executions scheduled in Texas through June, including one more in March and two in April, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's website. It was not immediately clear if more executions would be delayed. Scott Smith, the attorney for Tracy Beatty, whose execution is set for March 25, said Monday after the ruling that he planned to file his own motion to the Court of Criminal Appeals asking to stop Beatty's execution, too.