On Eve of Execution, Inmate Fights for Buddhist Priest

HOUSTON (CN) – A Texas death-row inmate who believes chanting prayers with his Buddhist priest as he is executed will help him be reborn in the “Pure Land” has asked the Fifth Circuit for a stay because Texas will not let the priest accompany him in the execution room.

Patrick Henry Murphy, Jr., 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.

Now known as the “Texas Seven,” some of the men held up a sporting goods store in Irving, Texas on Dec. 24, 2000.

Irving policeman Aubrey Hawkins pulled up to the store and was met with a hail of gunfire. The escaped convicts shot him 11 times, and then ran over his lifeless body as they fled with 44 stolen guns.

Six of the seven inmates were apprehended the following month after a friend of the owner of an RV park in Colorado saw a spot about them on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” and told the owner he believed the men were staying on the property. 

One of the men shot himself as police moved in. In 2003, a jury convicted Murphy of capital murder for Hawkins’ death and he was sentenced to death.

Murphy became an adherent of Pure Land Buddhism a decade ago, according to a lawsuit and motion to stay his execution filed Tuesday in Houston federal court.

“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,” the petition states.

But Murphy, who is set to die by lethal injection Thursday night, believes he can only be reborn if he can focus on Buddha as the pentobarbital Texas uses to execute prisoners enters his veins and shuts down his organs.

Through his attorneys David Dow and Jeff Newberry, professors at the University of Houston Law Center, he asked the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to let his Buddhist spiritual adviser Rev. Hui-Yong Shih be beside him in the death chamber so they could chant prayers as he leaves this world.

The TDCJ denied his request because its policy is only its employees can be in the death chamber in Huntsville during executions.

The agency only employs Christian and Muslim chaplains and it did not respond to Murphy’s inquiry if it has any Buddhist priests on staff who could accompany him in the execution room.

Murphy says in his lawsuit he assumes the TDCJ restricts access to the execution room for security reasons, but Rev. Shih poses no risk as he’s been visiting Murphy in prison for the last six years.

He claims Texas’ policy violates the First Amendment, which bans Congress from passing laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion, or establish any religion.

He also says TDCJ’s policies run afoul of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Passed by Congress in 2000, the law bars prison officials from interfering with “any exercise of religion” by inmates “whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.”

U.S. District Judge Sim Lake denied Murphy’s motion to stay Tuesday afternoon, finding he had waited too long, “until the eve of his execution,” to make his case.

Murphy appealed to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans on Wednesday morning.

His claims mirror arguments a Muslim death-row inmate in Alabama made in January. Domineque Ray, 42, said his execution would be unconstitutional because Alabama would not let his imam into the death room.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with him, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in a 5-4 decision.

The high court’s majority said Ray had waited too long, just 10 days before his death date, to bring a challenge in federal court. Ray was executed Feb. 7.

Murphy’s lawyers say the timing of his challenge differentiates his case from Ray’s.

“Murphy made his request to TDCJ an entire month before his scheduled execution. By doing so, Murphy gave TDCJ more than adequate time to address its interest in assuring his execution is secure,” his stay motion states.

If his efforts fail, Murphy will be the fourth U.S. inmate executed in 2019 and the fifth member of the Texas Seven executed by Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Its executive director Robert Dunham told the Associated Press in February that U.S. states generally allow spiritual advisers to accompany inmates to the door of the execution room, but not into it.

A TDCJ spokesman told Courthouse News the agency does not employ any Buddhists who could serve as Murphy’s spiritual adviser in the execution room.

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