HOUSTON (CN) — A practicing Buddhist, Patrick Murphy believes in rebirth after death. That prospect was postponed late Thursday by U.S. Supreme Court justices who stopped his execution, receptive to Murphy’s claims that Texas’ policies favor Muslim and Christian capital offenders over Buddhists.
More than a month before his March 28 execution date, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice denied Murphy’s request for his Buddhist priest, who has been visiting him in prison for the past six years, to be with him as he is executed.
The agency said that for security reasons only employees can be present. Then in a flurry of court filings this week, Murphy’s attorneys said Texas’ policies violate the First Amendment.
Because the TDCJ employs Muslim and Christian chaplains, Murphy said, death-row adherents to those faiths can have chaplains give them their last rites but Buddhists cannot.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh agreed in an order issued Thursday night. “In my view, the Constitution prohibits such denominational discrimination,” he wrote in a 3-page concurring opinion.
In equal-treatment cases like this, Kavanaugh wrote, states have a choice: “(1) allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room; or (2) allow inmates to have a religious adviser, including any state-employed chaplain, only in the viewing room, not the execution room.”
He recommended the latter: “Things can go wrong and sometimes do go wrong in executions, as they can go wrong and sometimes do go wrong in medical procedures. States therefore have a strong interest in tightly controlling access to an execution room in order to ensure that the execution occurs without any complications, distractions, or disruptions. The solution to that concern would be to allow religious advisers only into the viewing room.”
Murphy, 57, was serving a 50-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault in December 2000 when he and six other inmates escaped from a prison in Kenedy, Texas.
Dubbed the “Texas Seven,” the men shot Irving, Texas, policeman Aubrey Hawkins on Christmas Eve Day 2000 after stealing 44 guns from a sporting goods store.
In 2003, a jury convicted Murphy of capital murder for Hawkins’ death. He was sentenced to death,under a controversial Texas law in which people involved in a capital murder can be given the death penalty.
Texas has executed four of the Texas Seven. One of them shot himself as police moved in to recapture him.
On Wednesday, Murphy told Dallas CBS affiliate KTVT that his life should be spared because he did not shoot Hawkins. He was on the other side of the building when Hawkins was shot 11 times.
Murphy became a practitioner of Pure Land Buddhism a decade ago. “Accordingly, Murphy believes it is possible for him, after death, to be reborn in the Pure Land, a place where he could work towards enlightenment,” his attorneys wrote in court filings this week.
He is represented by University of Houston Law Center professors David Dow and Jeff Newberry.
Dow told Courthouse News, “We are pleased the Supreme Court acknowledged both that Mr. Murphy, as a Buddhist, is entitled to be accompanied in the execution chamber during the execution by a minister of his own faith, just as a Christian would be; and that the court also emphasized that by making his request of the prison a full month in advance of the scheduled execution, Mr. Murphy acted in a timely fashion.”
The reprieve was unexpected because just last month the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 margin, reversed an 11th Circuit order blocking Alabama from executing Domineque Ray, finding his motion to stay his execution was untimely.
Ray, 42, was executed on Feb. 7. He claimed his execution would be unconstitutional because Alabama would not let his imam into the death room. The majority said Ray had waited too long, just 10 days before his death date, to bring a challenge in federal court.
Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch said they would not have blocked Murphy’s execution.
Becket, a nonprofit Washington law firm focused on religious freedom, filed an amicus brief in support of Murphy. It commended Kavanaugh’s order.
“Religious liberty won today. The Supreme Court made it clear that the First Amendment applies to every American, no matter their faith,” its attorney Eric Rassbach said in a statement.