Journalists stood watch, eyes and ears representing all Texans, witnessing every execution carried out by Texas prison officials for nearly four decades.
That's when, either through incompetence or intent, journalists were left sequestered in an office building as Texas Department of Criminal Justice workers put Quintin Jones to death by lethal injection.
Witnessing executions is a duty no journalist relishes, but it is a vital oversight role we take seriously as state officials carry out the most grave punishment society can enact.
Reporters from The Huntsville Item -- who occupy one of two permanent media witness spots -- often find themselves among few non-state employees to witness executions at the state prison in Huntsville. And their reports often provide detail excluded from state records — like prisoners describing a burning sensation after lethal drugs are injected in their veins.
If not for reporters nationwide who stand witness to executions in death penalty states, we likely wouldn't know about dozens of botched executions that have occurred during the past several decades, including ones where lethal injections failed.
Those failings make Wednesday's debacle an alarming misstep. A misstep TDCJ officials appear unable to explain adequately.
“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. We apologize for this critical error,” TDCJ Communications Director Jeremy Desel said in a statement Wednesday night following Jones' death.
Under typical circumstances, journalists arrive at least one hour prior to the scheduled 6 p.m. execution time and check-in at the agency’s information technology building (the former administrative offices) across the street from the Huntsville “Walls” Unit. While waiting for final appeals with the U.S. Supreme Court, reporters undergo a pat-down search by prison guards.
There was no pat-down process Wednesday.
Once all appeals have cleared, the inmate is then transported from a cell adjacent to the death chamber and placed on the gurney as prison officials prepare for the execution. There is a lengthy checklist that all members of the execution team must complete. A key part is informing witnesses and the TDCJ director of communications that the inmate is ready.
That call was never made as Jones laid on the gurney.
Prison officials claimed the error occurred because of several new members of the execution team, a new warden and a new assistant warden. All of them dropped the ball. Officials also pointed to a change in policy that allows a non-TDCJ employed spiritual advisor to be present in the death chamber.
Changes or not, prison officials omitted the one step in their process that ensures transparency and public trust in an extraordinarily empowered institution. It’s an alarming mishap in a process that should be meticulously planned and executed.
Considering prison officials have run through the same process hundreds of times during the past four decades, the failure we witnessed leaves us with a bevy of unanswered questions. The state of Texas has executed 571 inmates since 1982 and until Wednesday journalists, often including representatives from The Huntsville Item, were present for all of them.
If journalists were excluded because of a simple oversight, we are left wondering whether the public should trust the officials involved to carry out such a grave process? And if journalists were intentionally excluded, we should all question whether we should continue to trust them with power over life and death?
TDCJ officials later said they launched an investigation into the incident, but the debacle they created demolished public trust in a process that simply can't exist without transparency.
The public deserves a thorough, thoughtful and transparent examination of Wednesday’s malignant violation of their trust.
Executions cannot and should not take place in secret in the United States.