The Supreme Court blocked Ruben Gutierrez’s execution around an hour before he was due to be executed because Texas had denied the condemned man’s request to be accompanied by a Catholic priest in the execution chamber.
Gutierrez’s application for stay of execution stated his belief that the presence of a “chaplain in the execution chamber will assist his passing from life to death and guide his path to the afterlife.”
The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops filed an amicus brief in support of Gutierrez’s petition, arguing that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was “placing a direct, irrevocable prohibition on his sincere religious exercise.”
The stay of execution will allow the courts to consider in full Gutierrez’s rights to pastoral accompaniment in the execution chamber. It may also see his conviction reviewed by the lower courts.
The 43-year-old is on death row for the 1998 killing of an 85-year-old woman in Brownsville, Texas, during a home robbery. Gutierrez has always maintained his innocence and his attorney requested that DNA evidence should be tested before his execution.
On June 9, Brownsville Federal District Court Judge Hilda Tagle agreed that both the religious freedom and evidence requests were sufficient to grant a stay of execution, writing that Gutierrez “has made a showing of likelihood of success on the merits of at least one of his DNA or execution-chamber claims.” Three days later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit lifted this stay at the state’s request.
The Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the original stay directed Judge Tagle to determine “whether serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution.”
The issue of spiritual accompaniment in the execution chamber came to prominence in February 2019, when a 5-to-4 vote in the Supreme Court allowed Alabama to proceed to execute a Muslim man, Domineque Ray, who had been denied a request for an imam to accompany him in the execution chamber.
The United States’ Bishops Conference released a statement at the time condemning the “indignity of being refused spiritual care” by the authorities. They said that such “unjust treatment is disturbing to people of all faiths” because people “deserve to be accompanied in death by someone who shares their faith.”
A month later, in a volte-face, the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to a Buddhist man in Texas who had challenged a prison policy that forbade his spiritual adviser from accompanying him in the execution chamber when ministers from other faiths were being granted that right. In response, Texas banned all spiritual advisors from accompanying inmates in the execution chamber, arguing that by doing so they were treating all religions equally.
Gutierrez argued that this policy violated the constitutional rights of religious exercise and equal protection. His attorney, Shawn Nolan, said that the “Texas Department of Criminal Justice changed its policy for its own convenience, but spiritual comfort at the time of death is not a convenience; it’s a protected legal right.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.