Death Penalty

SCOTUS blocks execution of man denied Buddhist adviser; decision was different in Muslim case

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On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the execution of a Texas inmate who wasn’t allowed to bring his Buddhist spiritual adviser into the execution chamber with him.

The Supreme Court said Texas may not execute Patrick Henry Murphy pending disposition of his cert petition, unless he is allowed access to his spiritual adviser or to another Buddhist reverend of the state’s choosing. NPR, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Texas Tribune have coverage.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote an opinion concurring in the execution stay. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch would have allowed the execution to proceed.

Texas allows Christian and Muslim chaplains into the execution chamber, but religious advisers from other denominations are allowed only in the viewing room, Kavanaugh said. “In my view,” he wrote, “the Constitution prohibits such denominational discrimination.”

Kavanaugh added going forward, the state could choose to let all inmates have a religious adviser of their faith into the execution room, or it could relegate all religious advisers to the viewing room.

The Supreme Court’s stay in Murphy’s case differs from its 5-4 decision last month to deny a stay to Muslim inmate Domineque Ray, who wanted his imam with him during the Alabama execution. The state allows Christian chaplains in the death chamber. Both states said they want only state employees in the death chamber because of security concerns.

In Ray’s case, the Supreme Court said it would not stay the execution because he waited too long to seek relief. In his concurring opinion in Murphy’s case, Kavanaugh said he concluded that Murphy had made his request for a religious adviser “in a timely manner.”

Some observers, however, suggested the real reason for the different result in Murphy’s case was the negative reaction to the court’s refusal to grant a stay for Ray.

Writing at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, Ilya Somin, a professor at the George Mason University law school, said Ray’s case had attracted “harsh, widespread criticism” from both political spectrums—the right and the left. The main point of contention, he wrote, was whether the Supreme Court majority denied a stay to Ray because of anti-Muslim bigotry or frustration with death-penalty delays.

In the new case, Somin pointed out, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New Orleans said Murphy also had waited too long to challenge the chaplain policy. Murphy’s lawyer was notified of the policy March 5 but waited until March 20 to raise related claims.

In Ray’s case, the prisoner filed his claim Jan. 28, just five days after his request for an imam was rejected, Somin said.

Patrick Henry Murphy Patrick Henry Murphy. Photo from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Somin said he thinks the likely reason for the different result was that the justices acted on a chance to correct their error in the Ray case. The justices likely “saw the extremely negative reaction against their decision in Ray and belatedly realized they had made a mistake—and not just any mistake but one that inflicted real damage on their and the court’s reputations,” he wrote.

Murphy was sentenced to death for being a lookout when a police officer was killed. The incident happened in 2000 when he and six other inmates escaped from prison.

Murphy adopted the religion known as Pure Land Buddhism while on death row. His belief is that he has to focus on the Buddha at the time of death to be reborn in the “pure land,” where he can “work towards enlightenment,” his lawyers said in a brief to the highest criminal court in Texas.

The case is Murphy v. Collier.

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