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Execution halted by US Supreme Court over religious rights question by Catholic inmate

by Press Association
Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Banner image
Texas Department of Criminal Justice

A death row inmate has been given a temporary reprieve after arguing his religious rights were being violated as a chaplain could not be in the execution chamber.

The US Supreme Court blocked the execution of Ruben Gutierrez an hour before it was due to take place in Texas on Tuesday.

Gutierrez was convicted of 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, only allowing prison security staff into the execution chamber.

Shawn Nolan, one of Gutierrez's lawyers, said: "As a devout Catholic, Mr Gutierrez's faith requires the assistance of clergy to help him pass from life into afterlife.

"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."

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.

The Supreme Court said if it were to rule in favor of Gutierrez, it would ask a lower court to "determine, based on whatever evidence the parties provide, 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".

A trial in Houston federal court on Murphy's case and whether his religious rights were violated is also still pending.

Kim Kardashian West has welcomed the Supreme Court's decision to grant a stay of execution.

The reality TV star turned criminal justice campaigner had called for a reprieve for Gutierrez.

He maintains his innocence and supporters, including Kardashian West, have called on authorities to test DNA collected from the victim's body in a bid to prove he is not guilty.

Prosecutors said Gutierrez, 43, was attempting to steal more than 600,000 dollars (£475,000) that Escolastica Harrison had hidden in her home in Brownsville, Texas, when he killed her in 1998.

If Gutierrez's execution had been carried out, he would have been the first inmate in Texas to receive a lethal injection since February 6 and the second US inmate to be put to death since states began to reopen after the pandemic shut down much of the country.

Gutierrez's lawyers had also sought a coronavirus-related delay but were turned down on Friday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

He has long maintained he did not kill Ms Harrison. His lawyers said there is no physical or forensic evidence connecting him to the killing.

"The state has fought such (DNA) testing at every turn, but surely the public interest would be best served by allowing DNA testing while the (Supreme Court) considers Mr Gutierrez's case, in order to prevent a wrongful execution in the future," Mr Nolan said.

Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz said he was disappointed the Supreme Court delayed the execution as the victim's family "has once again been denied justice".

"As a prosecutor, this changes nothing. It only delays his ultimate fate," he said.

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