HUNTSVILLE, Texas (CN) – Religion and executions are now oil and water in Texas as the state has banned clergy from accompanying the condemned in the execution room in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that stayed the execution of a Buddhist prisoner.
Patrick Murphy, 57, won a reprieve from the nation’s highest court last Thursday, minutes before the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was set to put him to death with a lethal dose of pentobarbital.
In a concurring opinion for a 7-2 majority of the high court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh agreed with Murphy’s attorneys that Texas had violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let his Buddhist priest join him in the death room.
The agency had told Murphy that for security reasons only employees could be present.
Since the TDCJ employs Muslim and Christian chaplains, death-row inmates of those faiths could have chaplains give them their last rites but Buddhists could not, as the TDCJ has no Buddhist spiritual advisers on staff.
Kavanaugh gave Texas 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.”
Choosing the second option, TDCJ changed its policies Tuesday effective immediately so now only security staff members are allowed in the death room.
“TDCJ chaplains will continue to be available to an offender until they are transferred to the execution chamber. . . . TDCJ chaplains and ministers/spiritual advisors designated by the offender may observe the execution only from the witness rooms,” spokesman Jeremy Desel said.
Murphy’s attorneys did not immediately respond Wednesday afternoon when asked for their reaction to the policy change.
Murphy was serving a 50-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault when he and six other inmates escaped from a prison in Kenedy, Texas in December 2000.
The group made their way north to Irving, Texas where they held up a sporting goods store and made off with 44 guns and $70,000 on Christmas Eve.
Irving policeman Aubrey Hawkins responded to the robbery and five of the “Texas Seven” unloaded on him, shooting him 11 times. The inmates then ran over Hawkins’ dead body as they fled in an SUV.
In 2003, a jury convicted Murphy of capital murder for Hawkins’ death. Murphy did not fire a shot because he was the lookout man for the heist.
But he was sentenced to death pursuant to a 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 shot himself.
The next inmate lined up for the Texas death chamber is Mark Robertson. He’s set for April 11, one of five more executions Texas has scheduled for 2019, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.