ACLU Review of Quintin Jones Execution Documents Finds Texas “Woefully Unprepared to Carry Out an Execution"

Documents that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) withheld from public disclosure for months reveal that “confusion and lack of training” have left the state “woefully unprepared to carry out an execution,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

On June 4, 2021, the ACLU filed a request with TDCJ for records related to the state’s May 19, 2021 execution of Quintin Jones without allowing media witnesses into the chamber. The execution, which drew widespread criticism, was the first in the 571 Texas executions since capital punishment resumed in the 1970s carried out without media witnesses. TDCJ initially blamed the absence of media witnesses on a “miscommunication.” The Department’s internal investigation found that the mistakes made during the execution were “preventable and inexcusable” but not intentional. Unsatisfied with the state’s explanation, the ACLU filed a Texas Public Information Act request to independently review the documents.

TDCJ refused to provide the documents, claiming that the information in the documents — some of which the agency had referred to in news releases about the Jones execution — were confidential under one or more of eight exemptions to the public records act and therefore “not subject to release.” The ACLU filed an appeal with the Texas Attorney General’s office alleging that TDCJ had engaged in “repeated attempts to obfuscate information critical to accountability.”

After what the ACLU called “six months of stonewalling,” TDCJ released 43 pages of documents, including emails, text messages, media witness protocols, and statements from prison staff involved in Jones’ execution. “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,’” the ACLU reported. “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.”

Following its internal investigation, the TDCJ announced that an undisclosed number of staff had been disciplined for their part in the execution. The Department also announced changes, including adding training, more clearly defining roles, and stationing an officer who is in contact with the execution team to the reporter waiting area.

TDCJ spokesperson Jeremy Desel asserted that no state laws had been broken during the execution. However, the ACLU charged that the TDCJ’s failure to allow reporters to witness the execution violated a federal court’s directive, the Texas Administrative Code, and the First Amendment.

“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,” the ACLU said.

Free speech groups and members of the Texas legislature criticized TDCJ’s failure to admit media witnesses to Jones’ execution. Rep. Jeff Leach (R – Plano), a co-chair of the Texas House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, tweeted, “There needs to be an immediate investigation in to what happened, why it happened and who is responsible. It was ‘a mistake’ and/or ‘a miscommunication’ is not acceptable. This is an unfathomable, colossal screw-up and we need answers.”

In a letter to TDCJ, Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas executive director Kelley Shannon wrote: “Executions must be done publicly to maintain the integrity of the judicial process. Indeed, the public interest is at its highest when the government is using its power to extinguish the life of a person. The media are the public’s eyes — and if they are excluded, there is no public witness.”

Texas has executed three people since Jones. Media have been present at those three executions but, the ACLU noted, “[w]hile 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.”

Sources

American Civil Liberties Union, Documents Reveal Confusion and Lack of Training in Texas Execution, April 21, 2022; Juan A Lozano, Agency: Texas exe­cu­tion held with­out media was inex­cus­able’, Associated Press, June 242021.

Read the ACLU appeal of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s refusal to release pub­lic records.