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U.S. Supreme Court halts Texas execution over clergy question

Juan A. Lozano
Associated Press

Houston — The U.S. Supreme Court granted a reprieve Tuesday to a Texas inmate scheduled to die for fatally stabbing an 85-year-old woman more than two decades ago, continuing a more than four-month delay of executions in the nation’s busiest death penalty state during the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Supreme Court blocked Ruben Gutierrez’s execution about an hour before he could have been executed. Gutierrez’s attorneys had argued his religious rights are being violated because the prison system won’t allow a chaplain to accompany him in the death chamber.

This undated photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows Ruben Gutierrez. Texas was set on Tuesday to end its more than four-month delay in executions due to the coronavirus pandemic with the scheduled lethal injection of Gutierrez, a death row inmate condemned for fatally stabbing an 85-year-old woman more than two decades ago.

The Texas prison system last year banned clergy from the death chamber following a Supreme Court ruling that halted the execution of another inmate, Patrick Murphy, who had requested a Buddhist adviser be allowed in the chamber. In response to the ruling in Murphy’s case, the Texas prison system changed its policy to no longer allow clergy in the death chamber and that only prison security staff would be allowed into the execution chamber,

“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 Mr. Gutierrez’s attorneys. “Mr. Gutierrez has that same right.”

More:DOJ sets new dates to begin federal executions

The Supreme Court said it granted the stay pending a ruling by the high court on Gutierrez’s petition on the issue of whether to allow a spiritual adviser to accompany him in the death chamber. A decision on the petition was expected at a later date.

Prosecutors said Gutierrez, 43, was attempting to steal more than $600,000 that Escolastica Harrison had hidden in her home in Brownsville, located in Texas’ southern tip, when he killed her in 1998.

If Gutierrez’s execution is carried out, he would be the first inmate in Texas to receive a lethal injection since Feb. 6 and the second U.S. inmate to be put to death since the country began to reopen after the pandemic shut down much of the U.S. After the country began to reopen, Missouri resumed executions in the U.S. on May 19.

Six executions scheduled in Texas for earlier this year were postponed by an appeals court or judges because of the outbreak. A seventh was delayed over claims of intellectual disability. Gutierrez’s attorneys had also sought a coronavirus-related delay but were turned down Friday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops has filed a brief with the high court in support of Gutierrez.

“To deny a prisoner facing imminent execution access to spiritual and religious guidance and accompaniment is cruel and inhuman,” said Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville.

Gutierrez has long maintained he didn’t kill Harrison. His attorneys say there’s no physical or forensic evidence connecting him to the killing. Two others were also charged in the case.

Authorities said Gutierrez befriended Harrison, a mobile home park manager and retired teacher, so he could rob her. Prosecutors said Harrison had a mistrust of banks and hid her money underneath a false floor in her bedroom closet.

Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz has called Gutierrez’s appeals “delay tactics.” Prosecutors have said the request for DNA testing is a “ruse” and Gutierrez was convicted on various pieces of evidence, including a confession.

“It is time for justice to be served for Mrs. Harrison,” Saenz said.

Gutierrez would be the third inmate put to death this year in Texas and the seventh in the U.S.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70