For the first time in more than 40 years, media was not allowed to witness a Texas execution

Interior of Death Chamber in Texas.
Interior of Death Chamber in Texas. (© 2010 Texas Department of Criminal Justice • All rights reserved • TDCJ Media Services • 4616 West Howard Lane, Suite 20)

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For the first time in the modern death penalty era, Texas did not let the media witness an execution.

Reporters have always been present at executions to observe the state as it wields its greatest power over life. Media reports often provide detail excluded from state records — like prisoners describing a burning sensation after lethal drugs are injected in their vein. Reporters across the country have served as watchdogs for botched executions.

On Wednesday, the state executed Quintin Jones, 41, for the Tarrant County murder of his great-aunt in 1999. It was the state’s first execution in 10 months, the longest lull in the country’s busiest death chamber since 1984.

Since 1982, when Texas capital punishment resumed after the death penalty was reinstated nationwide, all 570 state executions have had at least one media witness present, according to the Associated Press.

Until Wednesday.

TDCJ spokesperson Jeremy Desel said Wednesday night that the media’s non admittance was an error and resulted from a miscommunication between prison officials. Typically, when an execution is set to proceed, prison officials call the press office across the street, and the spokesperson walks the reporters over. He said that call never came.

“We apologize for this critical error,” Desel said. “The agency is investigating to determine exactly what occurred to ensure it does not happen again.”

On Thursday morning, Desel said the investigation was underway, but he could not yet provide more details on what it entailed.

Texas executions take place in the state’s oldest prison in Huntsville. Reporters the Associated Press and the Huntsville Item attend each execution, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice allows a small number of other Texas reporters to witness if they request to attend. Reporters stand in two small viewing rooms separated from the death chamber by a glass pane. The same rooms hold friends and family of the prisoner and murder victim.

The media can then report on final statements from the prisoner, which prison officials also release, but they also can detail how the lethal drugs affect the prisoner and statements the prisoner makes after the drugs begin to flow, which the prison doesn’t report.

In recent years, several Texas inmates have stated that the drugs burn after their final statement is concluded or jerked their body, according to media reports. The reports in part prompted legal filings against what death penalty defense attorneys called “tortuous” executions using old lethal injection drugs. Texas has repeatedly extended the expiration dates of its execution drugs after retesting their potency.

In other states, an Arizona reporter observing a botched execution counted how many times a prisoner gasped in the hours it took for him to die. Oklahoma journalists reported something had gone wrong after a prisoner’s vein blew when injected with a controversial lethal drug cocktail. He later died of a heart attack.