U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS stays execution of inmate seeking chaplain in death chamber

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The U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution Tuesday of a Catholic inmate in Texas who is seeking a chaplain in the death chamber.

The stay, issued about an hour before the scheduled execution of Ruben Gutierrez, allows the court to consider whether to grant certiorari in his case, report SCOTUSblog and CBS DFW 21.

Gutierrez contends that Texas’ 2019 ban on clergy in the execution chamber violates his rights under the free exercise clause and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a 2000 law that protects the religious rights of inmates.

Gutierrez’s stay application is here, and his cert petition is here.

The Supreme Court order granting the stay added an instruction to the U.S. district court in the case.

The lower court should promptly determine “whether serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution,” the Supreme Court said.

SCOTUSblog calls the instruction to the district court “an unusual twist.” The blog says the direction suggests that at least some justices want to know whether Texas switched its policy last year because of security concerns or because it wanted to avoid charges of religious discrimination raised by a different inmate.

The inmate, Patrick Henry Murphy, had sought a Buddhist spiritual adviser in the execution chamber. At the time, Texas allowed only state-employed chaplains of Christian or Muslim faiths. In March 2019, the Supreme Court stayed Murphy’s execution to consider whether to hear his religious discrimination claim.

The next month, Texas changed its policy to ban all spiritual advisers in the execution chamber.

The Texas decision picked up on a suggestion by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in an opinion concurring in the stay of Murphy’s execution. Kavanaugh said he thought the state could avoid constitutional problems by letting all inmates have a religious adviser of their faith in the execution chamber or by relegating all religious advisers to the viewing room.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops had filed an amicus brief supporting Gutierrez’s stay application. Celebrity and socialite Kim Kardashian West thanked the Supreme Court for granting the stay on social media, the Daily Mail reports.

A lawyer for Gutierrez, Shawn Nolan, said in a statement that Gutierrez is a “devout Catholic” whose faith requires the assistance of clergy to help him pass into afterlife.

“The Texas Department of Criminal Justice changed its policy for its own convenience, but spiritual comfort at the time of death is not a convenience; it’s a protected legal right,” Nolan said.

Nolan also said Gutierrez’s case is “gravely concerning” because Texas has fought his request for DNA testing to prove his innocence.

“Surely, the public interest would be best served by allowing DNA testing while the court considers Mr. Gutierrez’s case, in order to prevent a wrongful execution in the future,” Nolan said.

Gutierrez was convicted in the beating and stabbing death of an 85-year-old woman during a robbery at her home more than 20 years ago.

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