(CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution of convicted murderer Ruben Gutierrez late Tuesday due to Texas’ ban on clergy accompanying inmates into the execution chamber.
Justice Samuel Alito — an appointee of President George W. Bush — granted Gutierrez’s application for stay of execution. He ordered the trial court to promptly figure out “whether serious security problems would result” if Gutierrez, 43, is allowed to “choose the spiritual advisor” that accompanies him during the execution.
The halt came approximately one hour before Gutierrez was scheduled to die. He would have been the first death row inmate in Texas to die since February and the second in the U.S. to die since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Six of the state’s executions have been halted due to the virus.
Gutierrez’s attorneys claim the state’s ban violates his religious rights as a Catholic.
“Through hundreds of previous executions, the state of Texas has recognized that people being executed have the right to be in the presence of religious advisers when they face the end of their lives,” said Shawn Nolan, one of Gutierrez’s attorneys. “Mr. Gutierrez has that same right.”
Gutierrez was convicted of the 1998 killing of Escolastica Harrison, 85, with a screwdriver over $600,000 she purportedly had hidden inside her Brownsville home. Gutierrez has steadfastly claimed his innocence and has insisted that DNA testing will prove it.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice banned prison clergy in the execution chamber in April 2019 after the Supreme Court halted the execution of Patrick Murphy. Murphy had requested a Buddhist priest to accompany him, but the prison only employs Muslim and Christian chaplains who could perform last rights.
Justice Brent Kavanaugh — an appointee of President Donald Trump — wrote at the time that “denominational discrimination” is unconstitutional. He wrote Texas has the choice of allowing “all inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room; or allow inmates to have a religious adviser, including any state-employed chaplain, only in the viewing room, not the execution room.”
Texas chose the latter, banning all clergy from the execution chamber.
Gutierrez has also sought a delay in state court due to safety and staffing concerns during pandemic, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — the state’s highest criminal appeals court denied his request on June 12.
Gutierrez’s wife, Nicie Angie Gutierrez, cheered the Supreme Court’s intervention and thanked media personality Kim Kardashian West for speaking out on her husband’s behalf.
“They tested him for COVID-19 but couldn’t spend money testing DNA evidence we as the family even offered to pay but the DA refuses to let us test and prove my husbands innocence,” she posted before the ruling. “The blood of him will be on all hands who failed to test the DNA and they will be the real killers!”
The halted execution comes four days after the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops filed an amicus brief on Gutierrez’s behalf with the Supreme Court. Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville said Monday that the denial of access to clergy at an execution is “cruel and inhumane” to Gutierrez
“It is an affront to the moral and religious dimensions of human dignity, which are clearly protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution,” Flores said.
The bishops expressed “tremendous sympathy for the family” of the victim and “in no way do we wish to diminish the horror” of Harrison’s death or her family’s suffering for over 20 years.
“Our church affirms those who commit terrible, violent crimes must be incarcerated, both as just punishment and to protect society,” the bishops said.
Gutierrez’s co-defendants in the killing were Pedro Gracia and Rene Garcia. Garcia is serving a life sentence in Texas state prison after pleading guilty. Gracia has been on the run for 22 years after jumping $75,000 in bail before trial.