Texas stays third execution amid COVID-19 pandemic

Fabian Hernandez received the death penalty for the 2006 shooting deaths of his estranged wife, Renee Urbina Hernandez, and her boyfriend, Arturo Fonseca. File Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice

April 1 (UPI) — A Texas appeals court on Wednesday issued its third stay of execution amid a disruption to the judicial system brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas said Fabian Hernandez’s lethal injection will be delayed for 60 days, at which point a new execution date can be scheduled. The 44-year-old was originally scheduled to be executed April 23.

Hernandez is the third death row inmate in Texas to receive a stay amid the virus outbreak as lawyers argue they’re unable to investigate and defend their clients in the final weeks before scheduled executions.

Hernandez received the death penalty for the 2006 shooting deaths of his estranged wife, Renee Urbina Hernandez, and her boyfriend, Arturo Fonseca.

The court approved stays for John Hummel and Tracy Beatty last month. They were on the schedule to be executed March 18 and March 25, respectively.

Death penalty experts warn the pandemic could disrupt executions in the United States for months as millions of Americans are under stay-at-home orders that prevent the normal order of business from taking place.

Robert Dunham, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, told UPI last month 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.

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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.

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.”

It’s unclear how many scheduled executions might be stayed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Hernandez’s stay lasts through the beginning of June, during which time there are four more executions scheduled.

Of those, three are in Texas — 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.

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