HOUSTON (AP), Executions in Texas’ busiest capital punishment state are facing delays due to legal concerns over Texas’ refusal for spiritual advisers to touch condemned persons and pray aloud.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that John Henry Ramirez, a death row inmate, could make religious freedom claims regarding Texas’ executions, it is unclear when Texas will execute another. Three hours after the execution could have been scheduled, the court stopped his execution. Since then, several other prisoners have made similar claims. Some executions have been put on hold.
It would be unusual for someone with the same issue not to get a stay while that Supreme Court is deciding the issue. It would be very unusual,” Michael Benza, a Cleveland law professor.
It is possible that a Supreme Court ruling could be months away. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in November 1.
Ramirez believes the state is violating Ramirez’s religious freedom by not allowing his spiritual advisor to touch him and he cannot pray aloud as he is executed. Texas prison officials claim that direct contact poses security risks and that prayers spoken aloud could cause disruption.
Stephen Barbee is the most recent victim of this delay. He was due to be executed Tuesday. However, U.S. district Judge Kenneth Hoyt in Houston ruled on Thursday that Barbee initially showed Texas’ “limitations at the execution chamber substantially hamper the exercise of his faith.”
Barbee’s attorney Richard Ellis said Friday that he was grateful for the suspension of execution. “This will allow the court to evaluate these important religious right issues.”
Two other inmates were granted delays by courts — Ruben Gutierrez scheduled for Oct. 27, Fabian Hernandez set for Nov. 3. — after prosecutors requested. Ramiro Gonzales (slated for execution Nov. 17) and Kosoul Chauthakoummane (slated to die Nov. 10), also have similar religious freedom claims which could delay their lethal injections.
Texas executions have been very rare in the past two years. This is largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were only three lethal injections last year, and three this year. Texas executed 13 executions in 2018, and nine in 2019.
During the pandemic, only Texas and Missouri executed inmates. Missouri had two. In this same time, 13 inmates were executed by the Trump government. Oklahoma and Alabama are both scheduled to be executed later this year.
Although the Supreme Court has made some rulings on the issue of spiritual advisors being present in the death chamber, it has not yet issued a final decision. Inmates are citing both the First Amendment to the Constitution and a federal 2000 law that protects prisoners’ religious rights.
The review by the high court comes after Texas’s prison system in April reversed the two-year ban against spiritual advisers in death chambers. However, it limited what they could do. The ban was imposed by Texas after Patrick Murphy’s execution was stopped by the Supreme Court in 2019. Murphy had claimed that Patrick Murphy’s religious freedom was being violated due to the fact that his Buddhist spiritual advisor wasn’t allowed to accompany him. Murphy remains on death row.
Murphy’s case was decided after the court was criticised for refusing to stop the execution of Domineque Ray, an Alabama prisoner, over Ray’s request to have his Islamic spiritual advisor in the death chamber.
Bobby Lumpkin from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Correctional Institutions Division suggested that a spiritual adviser might be able to help an inmate release or withdraw the intravenous line which administers the lethal injection. Lumpkin stated that prison officials may not be able to hear about problems if audible prayers are used.
Lumpkin said that death row contains many of the most violent, unpredictable, and dangerous inmates of (the prison system’s), and they have nothing to lose trying to escape or taking and attacking hostages. Lumpkin also stated that the rule against physical contact increases the institution’s security and protects visitors.
Alabama, as part a settlement in a lawsuit, agreed to let Willie Smith, death row inmate and pastor, hold his hand during his Oct. 21 execution.
J. Patrick Hornbeck II, a Fordham University professor of theology, stated that the Supreme Court will examine how to balance the state’s legitimate interest and the freedom of prisoners to practice their religion.
Hornbeck stated, “It’s going be a real test for the consistency that justices bring to these sort of questions to see how they handle these kinds of religious freedom claims when raised by prisoners who were condemned to death for heinous crime but are seeking solace in their last moments of life.”
Michael Mushlin from Pace University in New York said it’s probable that the Supreme Court will issue a ruling regarding two specific issues. They are whether spiritual advisers may pray loudly or whether they can touch inmates. He said that it is unclear whether the court will issue a wider ruling that covers all activities a spiritual advisor can perform in an execution chamber.