The judge is delaying another execution in Texas over religious freedom claims

Another Texas inmate has delayed his execution because of claims that the state violates his religious freedom by not letting his spiritual advisor get his hands on him at the time of his lethal injection.

Ruben Gutierrez was executed Oct. 27 for fatally stabbing an 85-year-old Brownsville woman in 1998.

But a judge on Wednesday accepted a request from the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office to leave the execution date. Prosecutors said the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming review of similar religious freedom issues by another inmate, John Henry Ramirez, whose execution was delayed last week, will affect Gutierrez’s case. .

“Since Ramirez’s case may be the subject of any issue related to Gutierrez’s claim to religious freedom, it is in the best interests of the state, the family of the victim of Gutierrez’s crimes, to delay his execution. prosecutors said in a motion filed Tuesday.

Gutierrez was within an hour of execution in June 2020, when the Supreme Court granted him a stay because his spiritual adviser was not allowed to accompany him to the death chamber.

Last month, Gutierrez’s attorneys filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice violated his right to practice his religion by denying his request for his priest to touch him. shoulder, pray aloud and perform the last rites when he was executed.

Gutierrez, 44, said these three things need to be done “to secure my way to the afterlife,” according to his complaint.

His lawyers cited the First Amendment to the Constitution and a federal statute that protects an inmate’s religious rights. Ramirez made similar claims when he was granted a stay.

The Supreme Court has dealt with the presence of spiritual advisers in the death chamber in recent years, but has not issued a final ruling on the matter. That could change after hearing oral arguments in Ramirez’s Nov. 1 case.

The court was criticized after he refused to stop the execution of Alabama inmate Domineque Ray in February 2019 for his request to have his Islamic spiritual adviser in the death chamber, but a month later he grant a stay to Texas prisoner Patrick Murphy, who wanted his Buddhist spiritual advisor in the chamber.

Since then, the Supreme Court has delayed several executions at the request of spiritual advisers.

After the court stopped Murphy’s execution, the Texas prison system banned all clergy from the death chamber. Texas previously allowed state-employed clergy to accompany inmates, but prison staff only included Christian and Muslim clergy.

In April, the Texas prison system reversed its two-year ban. The new policy allows an approved inmate’s approved spiritual advisor to be in the room, but the two cannot have any contact and vocal prayers are not allowed during the execution. Texas prison officials say direct contact poses a security risk and that vocal prayer can be disruptive.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the Ramirez case is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to determine whether inmates are entitled to a spiritual counselor in a death ward and, if so, , what is allowed to exercise this right.

“The fact that this case can provide the court with an opportunity to present a plan of what is and what is not acceptable is not a guarantee that they will do so,” said Dunham, whose group does not take any position on the case. capital punishment, but has criticized the way states carry out executions.

If the Supreme Court does not provide clear guidance, that issue will appear continuously, Dunham said.

Gutierrez has long maintained that he did not kill Scholastic Harrison during what prosecutors say was an attempt to steal more than $ 600,000 the elderly woman had hidden in her home.

His lawyers have requested DNA evidence that they say could point to the actual killer.

Prosecutors have said the petition is “cunning” and that Gutierrez was convicted on several counts, including a confession.

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