Responding to escalating health concerns caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) has temporarily halted the execution of John Hummel. In an order issued on March 16, 2020, the TCCA stayed Hummel’s execution, which had been scheduled for March 18, for 60 days, saying the delay was necessary “in light of the current health crisis and the enormous resources needed to address that emergency.”

Hummel’s attorney had asked for the stay, arguing that the health crisis has impeded last-minute investigations in the case, and that bringing execution witnesses into the prison would put vulnerable people, especially prisoners, at risk of contracting the virus. Three other executions are scheduled in Texas in the next 60 days, but it is not yet clear what action the court will take on those cases.

In a March 13 filing, Hummel’s attorney, Michael Mowla, argued that societal disruptions related to the pandemic would impede final review of Hummel’s case and that moving forward with the execution could endanger witnesses, prisoners, and prison staff. He also said that the absence of members of the execution team due to illness could increase the risk of a botched execution. Noting that courts, the governor, and the Board of Pardons and Paroles must all consider final appeals and clemency pleas, Mowla said, “Disruptions in any one of those offices—or the illness of a judge or decision maker—could render it impossible for Hummel to receive review.”

Also on March 13, the TCCA issued a First Emergency Order Regarding the COVID-19 State of Disaster. The order grants all Texas courts discretion to “[m]odify or suspend any and all deadlines and procedures … for a stated period ending no later than 30 days” after the current State of Disaster declared by Governor Greg Abbott is lifted. The order mandates suspension of procedures where necessary “to avoid risk to court staff, parties, attorneys, jurors, and the public.” Legal experts said that the order was likely to cover procedures such as executions, clemency hearings, and the issuance of new death warrants.

The court’s action is unusual but not unprecedented in Texas. On September 11, 2001, then-Governor Rick Perry granted a 30-day reprieve of an execution scheduled for that night. In 2017, a Bexar County court withdrew an execution date because the prisoner’s attorney lived in Harris County, which had declared a state of emergency in response to Hurricane Harvey. Both prisoners were later executed.

Both the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied the substantive claims raised in Hummel’s latest appeals. The Fifth Circuit rejected Hummel’s argument that he was denied sufficient funding for experts to bolster his clemency petition. Hummel, a military veteran, sought funding for mental health experts who could address the effect of his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Texas court denied claims relating to defects with the execution warrant and an argument that the prosecutor’s office should have been disqualified from the case because Hummel’s trial lawyer was now a high-ranking official in the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office. The Fifth Circuit denied Hummel’s request for a stay due to the impact of COVID-19, calling concerns about the denial of final visits and the disruption to court review “speculative.”

Death-penalty experts voiced support for halting executions, given the unique challenges presented by the global pandemic. Rob Owen, a Chicago attorney who has represented death-row prisoners in several states, including Texas, told The Appeal, “There’s just a whole lot of profound problems with deciding to go forward with executions in an environment where travel is impossible, communications are restricted, and the ability of advocates to fully examine the circumstances of the case and make sure everything is legal and sound is compromised.”

In an email to DPIC, Jerry Givens, who carried out 62 executions in his 17 years as the correctional officer in charge of Virginia’s electrocutions, wrote: “With this Coronavirus that has taken control over our Country, executions should be the last thing on the list. Let us join together and pray that things will get better.”


Lauren Gill, TEXAS COURT ISSUES TEMPORARY STAY OF EXECUTION AMID CORONAVIRUS HEALTH CRISIS, The Appeal, March 16, 2020; Jolie McCullough, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stops an exe­cu­tion because of coro­n­avirus, The Texas Tribune, March 16, 2020; Keri Blakinger, As COVID-19 Measures Grow, Prison Oversight Falls, The Marshall Project, March 172020.

Read the Stay Order by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Read the U.S. Court of Criminal Appeals deci­sion in Hummel v. Davis.