Quintin Jones Execution Condemned Over 'Disturbing' Failure to Bring In Media Witnesses

Texas prison officials are being sharply criticized over a "disturbing" error that led to Quintin Jones being executed without any media witnesses present.

Jones, 41, was put to death for the 1999 killing of his elderly great-aunt, Berthena Bryant, on Wednesday evening, despite pleas from her sister and other advocates for clemency. He was pronounced dead at 6:40 p.m., minutes after being given the lethal injection at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, Jeremy Desel, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice confirmed to Newsweek.

Reporters from the Associated Press and The Huntsville Item, who were waiting in an office across the street to witness the execution, didn't attend because Desel didn't receive a phone call from the prison, in what he called a "miscommunication."

Each of the state's 570 executions since capital punishment resumed in 1982 have had at least one media witness. Desel told the AP that Jones' execution included a number of new personnel who had never participated in the process before.

The failure to have reporters present was "a new low in execution transparency," according to Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. He told Newsweek that the failure to bring in the reporters amounts to a violation of Texas law, citing Section 152.51 of the Texas Administrative Code.

But Desel said the lack of media witnesses didn't violate that statute, because "it authorizes persons able to witness executions. It does not mandate them witnessing." Desel also pointed to Article 43.20 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, which he said does not mention media.

Dunham said: "That is a matter of semantics. I would say it is a violation of the law because Texas prevented media, whom the law authorized to be present, from witnessing the execution. If no one from the media had been there to witness, despite being authorized to attend, it would not have been a violation. But they were there, and their attendance had been approved."

Media witnesses are "literally the public's eyes and ears on the execution process," Dunham added. "That Texas cares so little about transparency that it 'forgot' to let the media in and then no one on the execution team inside the witnessing rooms noticed that the media witnesses weren't there exhibits a stunning disregard for public accountability."

Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project, told Newsweek she was "profoundly disturbed" by what happened.

The explanation offered by officials only raises more questions, Stubbs added.

"Why did Texas move forward with staff that were unprepared for the incredibly serious task assigned?" she said. "The ACLU believes this enormous protocol breach and admission of inadequate training requires a full and independent investigation."

Stubbs added: "It is both a violation of Texas procedure and federal constitutional law to carry out an execution without media witnesses."

But Desel said: "On the federal level, it is my understanding that under the First Amendment, we cannot ban media. That is not what happened in this case."

Due to the lack of media witnesses, we have no idea what happened during the execution, no idea if anything went wrong, and no idea if protocols were followed.

— Sister Helen Prejean (@helenprejean) May 20, 2021

In a series of tweets, anti-death penalty campaigner Sister Helen Prejean said the lack of transparency was "especially disturbing in light of repeated botched executions around the United States."

"Due to the lack of media witnesses, we have no idea what happened during the execution, no idea if anything went wrong, and no idea if protocols were followed," she wrote.

"If a mistake this basic can so easily occur, then what kinds of other serious mistakes are happening every time Texas chooses to kill a citizen? This is why we can never trust the government with the power to kill."

Desel told Newsweek that an investigation is underway, but could not confirm how long it would take to complete.

"As a result of a miscommunication between officials at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, there was never a call made to summon the media witnesses into the unit," he said. "We apologize for this critical error. The agency is investigating to determine exactly what occurred to ensure it does not happen again."

Abraham Bonowitz, the director of Death Penalty Action, told Newsweek that protesters outside the prison usually know an execution is happening when media witnesses enter the prison.

"Then we know it is done when they come out," he said. "We never saw anyone go in, so when people came out, we had to ask them."

Still, he said the failure on the part of Texas officials was "actually good news" in terms of moving the nation closer to abolishing capital punishment.

It shows that executions "have become such a rare event even in Texas that they will have to follow a checklist rather than going by muscle memory," he said. Jones' execution was the first in Texas since Billy Wardlow was executed in July last year.

"We've now ended the longest stretch of time between state executions in 40 years," Bonowitz said. "We know we can live without the death penalty, and I believe that if we work hard enough, soon we will see abolition even here in the United States."

Kristin Houlé Cuellar, the executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the lack of media witnesses is "inexplicable and deeply concerning."

"It is difficult to accept TDCJ's explanation that this was some kind of 'honest' mistake," Cuellar said. "Executions represent the most powerful action our government can take against an individual.

"If the State insists on carrying them out, they must be conducted with the utmost transparency. Better yet, to avoid these outrageous situations in the future, the State of Texas should abandon the death penalty altogether."

Dunham added that Jones' execution will become a "poster child for the lack of transparency and accountability in the U.S. execution process and why the public no longer trusts states to properly conduct executions.

"If the state with the most experience carrying out executions lacks the competence to carry out this most basic execution function, it raises questions about what else in the execution process states can't be trusted to do properly."

Abraham Bonowitz protest
Abraham Bonowitz joins fellow members of the Abolitionist Action Committee during an annual protest and hunger strike against the death penalty outside the U.S. Supreme Court July 01, 2019 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images