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Supreme Court allows Texas to skirt execution pause on man who killed 80-year-old during carjacking

Texas asked the justices for emergency action so the state could carry out an execution despite two lower court rulings that put a man’s sentence on hold.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court lifted Jedidiah Murphy’s execution pause on Tuesday, overruling two lower courts that paused his execution to examine DNA evidence that could undercut his death sentence. 

The justices did not provide an explanation for their ruling, issuing a two-sentence order vacating the lower court pause. Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson would have denied the application. 

Murphy, 48, is on Texas’ death row for the 2000 murder of Bertie Cunningham. Murphy shot the 80-year-old in the head during a carjacking. He was scheduled to be executed for the crime on Oct. 10, but DNA in another case got in the way. 

A jury sentenced Murphy to death after testimony from a victim in a prior unsolved kidnapping and robbery case was presented to them. According to his attorneys, this testimony was key in the jury’s finding that Murphy was a threat to society. Murphy says he didn’t commit the crime. 

This past March, Murphy asked the state for post-conviction DNA testing to clear his name of the kidnapping. A trial court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied his request. 

Murphy then turned to the federal courts. He filed a federal civil rights complaint, claiming Texas’ criminal code violated his constitutional rights by not allowing him to present evidence that could demonstrate his innocence of the death penalty. 

On Oct. 6, a federal judge blocked his impending execution to review his civil rights complaint. A three-judge Fifth Circuit panel then upheld the pause. 

The 2-1 ruling from the panel resulted in a rare opinion from the dissenting judge, U.S. Circuit Judge Jerry Smith. Instead of writing a dissent, the Ronald Reagan appointee wrote a fake majority opinion. Smith said he made the unusual move to release what he thought should have been the majority opinion “in the interest of time.” 

Since Smith’s “majority opinion” was not a real majority opinion, Texas was forced to appeal to the justices. In a late filing Monday night, the state urged the high court to reverse both lower court orders. 

“Murphy’s ‘strategy’ in bringing such a ‘vapid last-minute attempt’ to stay his execution ‘is no secret, for it is the same strategy adopted by many death-row inmates with an impending execution: bring last-minute claims that will delay the execution, no matter how groundless. The proper response to this maneuvering is to deny meritless requests expeditiously,’”  Ali Nasser, assistant attorney general for Texas, wrote in the state’s application

Murphy’s attorneys say the stay on his execution is necessary to prevent irreparable harm. 

“Death is irreparable,” Catherine Clare Bernhard, a Texas attorney representing Murphy, wrote in his brief. “The state argues that it would nonetheless be no ‘injury’ to Mr. Murphy because he cannot prove he will ultimately win his lawsuit. This argument, which is entirely premised on Murphy losing his lawsuit, misreads and defeats the purpose of the irreparable injury Nken factor.” 

Citing media coverage of the case, Murphy’s attorneys argue there is a public interest in pausing the execution to examine the case further. 

“The public has an interest in enforcing court judgments, to be sure; but, the public interest is not merely in seeing the execution carried out, but ‘in having a just judgment,’” Bernhard wrote. “And the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system is undermined when the State carries out executions that violate our constitutional norms.” 

Attorneys for Murphy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the high court's order.

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Criminal

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