The outbreak of the novel coronavirus prompted the top Texas criminal appeals court on Monday to stay for 60 days the scheduled execution of a man condemned for killing his family. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected all grounds of John William Hummel's appeal but said it would postpone the scheduled Wednesday execution "in light of the current health crisis and the enormous resources needed to address the execution."
One of the issues that Michael Mowla, Hummel's attorney, had raised in his efforts to stop the execution was a concern that the process involved with putting Hummel to death "may itself assist in spreading COVID-19."
A number of people either take part or witness the execution in the death chamber at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, including correctional officers, attorneys, physicians and family members or friends of the inmate and of the victims.
"Gathering all these people in one location presents a substantial risk of transmission of COVID-19/Coronavirus if anyone is infected," Mowla wrote in a petition to the appeals court last week.
Mowla declined to comment on Monday after the appeals court issued the execution stay.
Hummel, 44, was convicted in 2011 of capital murder in the December 2009, Joy Hummel, 45, and fatal bludgeoning of his father-in-law, Clyde Bedford, 57, with a baseball bat.
Evidence showed he also used the bat to beat to death Jodi Hummel, his 5-year-old daughter, before he torched their home in Kennedale, a Fort Worth suburb. However, he was only convicted of capital murder in the deaths of his wife and father-in-law.
Prosecutors say Hummel killed his family so he could woo a woman he had met at a convenience store.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice had been prepared to carry out the execution as officials had instituted a screening process for people who would have witnessed it, said agency spokesman Jeremy Desel.
Execution witnesses would have been subject to the same screening that department employees have to go through before entering a prison unit. The screening involves questions based on travel, potential exposure to the coronavirus and health inquiries, Desel said.
The death chamber is not a heavy traffic area and is completely isolated from all parts of the prison in Huntsville, Desel said.
"But it is thoroughly cleaned, consistently and constantly. We are taking precautions throughout the prison system," he said.