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Texas Bans All Clergy from Death Chamber after Supreme Court Stays Execution

by Matt Clarke

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Texas prisoner Patrick H. Murphy on March 28, 2019, based upon his challenge to a prison policy that effectively allowed only Christian and Muslim clergy members to be present in the death chamber during executions. Within a few days, Texas officials responded by banning all clergy from the death chamber.

Murphy, 57, was sentenced to die for his part in the murder of police officer Aubery Hawkins as part of the “Texas 7” – a group of prisoners who escaped from a maximum-security facility in late 2000. The escapees were fleeing the robbery of a Dallas-area sporting goods store when Hawkins intercepted them in the parking lot. Murphy was acting as a lookout at the getaway car when the officer was shot; he was convicted of capital murder under the law of parties. [See: PLN, Oct. 2001, p.8].

The Supreme Court issued the stay on the day Murphy was scheduled to be put to death. On March 20, 2019, he had petitioned the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for a writ of prohibition to prevent his execution until his preferred spiritual adviser, a Buddhist priest, was allowed to be present in the death chamber.

At that time, prison policies allowed only state-employed chaplains to be present at the time of execution. Clergy and spiritual advisers who were not state employees were permitted to meet with the condemned prisoner on the day of execution prior to entering the death chamber, and allowed to witness the execution from a viewing room. However, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) employed only Christian and Muslim chaplains, effectively banning clergy and spiritual advisers of all other religions from the death chamber.

Murphy began practicing Pure Land Buddhism about a decade ago. At the end of February 2019, his attorney, David R. Dow, requested that Rev. Hui-Yong Shih, Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual adviser for the preceding six years, be allowed to be present in the death chamber. 

“Murphy’s faith teaches that, in order to enter into what he understands to be the ‘Pure Land,’ he must focus on the Buddha at the time of death, and Rev. Shih’s presence in the chamber could make that possible,” Dow explained.

The request was denied, and after unsuccessfully seeking a stay in state court, Murphy filed a federal civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, requesting a stay until Rev. Shih was allowed to be present during the execution. The federal district court dismissed the complaint as untimely and Murphy appealed. 

The Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that Murphy had waited too long to challenge the TDCJ’s policies related to spiritual advisers, and noting that Dow had previously been sanctioned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for late filings in death penalty cases. [See: PLN, Dec. 2016, p.36]. Murphy filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, which led to the issuance of the last-minute stay of execution. 

The Court had been strongly criticized for a recent 5-4 vote denying a similar request for a stay by Muslim death row prisoner Domineque Hakim Marcelle Ray, who was scheduled for execution in Alabama. In that case, only a Christian chaplain who was a prison employee was allowed to be present in the death chamber. Ray was executed on February 7, 2019. [See: PLN, April 2019, p.24; Mar. 2019, p.30].

In Murphy’s case, the Supreme Court justices, in a 7-2 vote, issued an unsigned stay of execution that was opposed by Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas. In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote that allowing only Christian and Muslim chaplains to attend executions constituted religious discrimination, but Texas could exclude all spiritual advisers from the death chamber without violating the Constitution. Within days of the stay, Texas officials took his advice and did just that, allowing clergy members to “observe the execution only from the witness rooms.” See: Murphy v. Collier, 139 S.Ct. 1111 (2019). 

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Sources: nytimes.com, npr.org, thehill.com, Texas Tribune

Related legal case

Murphy v. Collier