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COVID-19 could disrupt U.S. executions for months

Eighteen people are scheduled to be executed through the end of the year in the United States. COVID-19 could put off several of those dates. File Photo by Paul Buck/EPA
Eighteen people are scheduled to be executed through the end of the year in the United States. COVID-19 could put off several of those dates. File Photo by Paul Buck/EPA

March 20 (UPI) -- Two executions have been postponed in Texas this month, and it's possible the coronavirus pandemic could disrupt several more, which one expert says could reduce the dwindling support for the death penalty in the United States.

With many non-essential public spaces shut down to try to contain the virus' spread, lawyers for two condemned men sought and received 60-day stays of execution.

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The Court of Criminal Appeals approved the stays for John Hummel on Monday and Tracy Beatty on Thursday. They were on the schedule to be executed March 18 and March 25, respectively.

Pandemic difficulties

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Robert Dunham, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which provides resources on capital punishment, told UPI he expects more upcoming executions to receive stays.

At least one other death row inmate -- Oscar Smith in Tennessee -- has requested a stay and is awaiting a response from the state's Supreme Court. He's scheduled to be put to death June 4.

Smith's lawyers said efforts to limit people from transmitting the virus have made it difficult for them to work on their client's case.

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"It would be irresponsible and against the public's interest to conduct the necessary investigation during this pandemic," the motion for a stay reads. "Mr. Smith's team cannot conduct the work necessary to fulfill their obligation to him without putting themselves and others at risk."

Dunham said there's a lot of legal work that happens once a death row inmate is put on the calendar for execution. In some cases, witnesses don't come forward to provide evidence or testimony until there's a date.

This means there's a substantial investigation that goes on in the weeks and months before an execution involving multiple courts. Many states have closed prison facilities, preventing lawyers from interacting with their clients except in certain situations.

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The actual execution date involves media witnesses, family members of the victims and defendants, spiritual advisers and corrections officials. Many take part in or watch the execution inside rooms that don't allow for the 6 feet of space federal health officials recommend between people.

"You are creating a potential petri dish to spread the virus," he said. "That doesn't even go to the question of the very scarce judicial resources."

The Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, for example, have closed some buildings and limited hearings and trials.

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"When courts aren't even capable of dealing with the ordinary business, it is unrealistic to expect they'll be capable of dealing with extraordinary business," Dunham said.

Looking ahead

It's unclear how many scheduled executions might be stayed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Hummel and Beatty's stays last through mid-May, during which time another five executions are scheduled.

Of those, four are in Texas -- Fabian Hernandez on April 23, Billy Wardlow on April 29, Edward Busby on May 6 and Randall Mays on May 13. One is scheduled in Missouri -- Walter Barton on May 19.

Dunham said the coronavirus will likely affect every execution on the calendar as long as the outbreak is considered a pandemic. President Donald Trump said operations may not return to normal in the United States until July or August.

That could affect another eight scheduled executions in Texas and Ohio.

Even with the 60-day stay, Hummel's and Beatty's executions likely won't take place for several months, said Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She said that after the 60-day period, it'll be up to prosecutors to request new execution dates for the men, a process that by Texas law requires a minimum 90 days.

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She said she expects more death row inmates in Texas to request stays going forward.

"Depending on where we are with the virus and the response, I would fully expect them to do whatever they can to stop those executions from proceeding," Houlé said.

Dunham said that even those who have execution dates beyond mid-May are still being adversely affected because their lawyers can't carry out investigations.

"It would be irresponsible and potentially deadly for the defense teams to be sending out investigators," he said.

Death penalty support

Dunham, whose organization doesn't advocate for or against the death penalty, said the pandemic will likely slow down, if not temporarily halt, efforts to execute prisoners in the United States in the coming months.

There's been dwindling support for the death penalty in the United States in recent years. In the 1980s and 1990s, Gallup recorded consistent majorities among Americans favoring the death penalty as a suitable punishment for convicted killers.

Now, Americans prefer life in prison for those convicted of murder. The pollster found in November that 60 percent of respondents favored imprisonment, while 36 chose capital punishment.

Reflecting that change of public opinion, 21 states have now abolished capital punishment, and Colorado's legislature voted to do the same last month.

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Dunham said there's a possibility a temporary halt in executions nationwide could push the trend even further toward fewer executions overall.

"When you go through society-altering events like this," Dunham said of the pandemic, and "you come out the other side, there's a tendency to reassess social values."

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