U.S. Supreme Court Halts Texas Execution in Relation to Religious Advisor


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U.S. Supreme Court Halts Texas Execution in Relation to Religious Advisor

According to The Texas Tribune, a man in his 30s who was sentenced to die in the State of Texas was scheduled for execution just last week, but his request to be in physical contact with his pastor at the time of his execution was denied by the state. And the Supreme Court stepped in to hear arguments on the matter – halting the execution about three hours after it had been scheduled to take place. This is the third time since 2019 that the highest court in the nation has stopped an execution in Texas in relation to prison restrictions that guide how religious advisors are allowed to attend to death row prisoners at the time of their executions.

The Accused

The accused is a 37-year-old man who was sentenced to execution at his 2008 conviction for the 2004 robbery-murder of a convenience store clerk in Corpus Christi. The man was convicted of stabbing the clerk 29 times in the course of a robbery spree (in pursuit of drug money). The convenience store clerk had only $1.25 on him at the time of his murder. After his execution date was set, the prisoner made his last request, which was that his pastor would be allowed to hold on to him while he died, but the Texas prison system denied the man’s request. While the prisoner maintains that the state’s decision violates his right to religious freedom, lower courts have thus far sided with the state in its rejection of the request for physical contact with a spiritual leader at the time of death.

A U.S. District Judge Weighs In

A U.S. district judge ruled prior to the execution that the state has a compelling interest in maintaining an orderly, safe, and effective process when carrying out an irrevocable and emotionally charged procedure. The judge went on to say that the state would accommodate the convicted man’s religious beliefs by permitting him access to his pastor on execution day and by permitting the pastor to stand near the convicted man during the execution. According to an email from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s general counsel (included in the court record), execution protocol allows only for spiritual advisors to stand in the corner of the death chamber for what are deemed security concerns.

The Pastor’s Request

The convicted man’s pastor relayed that being in the same room with the dying man without being allowed to touch him physically would not allow her to provide a full measure of solace in his darkest hour of need. She makes this clear with the comment that I need to be in physical contact with (the convicted man) during the most stressful and difficult time of his life in order to give him comfort.

The History behind the Objection

In past years, the chaplains employed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) were permitted to remain in the death chamber during executions and could lay a hand on the prisoner’s leg while praying with him or her but TDCJ only staffs Christian and Muslim advisors. When a Buddhist man on death row was told in 2019 that he would not be allowed to have a spiritual advisor in the room for his execution, he deemed it religious discrimination, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with him. This spawned a legal tug-of-war in relation to Texas execution protocols that has been going on for several years.

The Next Steps

From here, there are several additional legal maneuverings.

Total Ban

Just days after this Supreme Court’s ruling, TDCJ boldly opted to ban all spiritual advisors from the death chamber itself, and this included the spiritual advisors that it employs. Instead, spiritual advisors were required to stand in one of the small rooms that are attached to the chamber (where the media and the friends and family of the dying man or woman in question gather).

Supreme Court Stops Another Execution

In June of last year, the Supreme Court halted another execution in Texas in response to the state’s total ban. The man who had been condemned to death in this instance argued that his religious freedoms were being violated, and the Supreme Court justices ordered lower courts to make a legal determination regarding whether or not serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual advisor the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution.

Another TDCJ Revision

In April, TDCJ revised its execution policy yet again, and now, it allows those inmates who have been sentenced to death to have the spiritual advisor of their own choosing with them at the time of their execution, but the advisors must first complete all of the following requirements:

  • Be verified by TDCJ

  • Pass a background check

  • Complete a state orientation

These outside spiritual advisors – unlike those hired by TDCJ – are not allowed to touch the prisoner as he or she is put to death.

Back to the 2021 Case

The attorney of the man who killed the convenience store clerk, Seth Kretzer, commented that TDCJ’s policy amounted to a spiritual gag order, but the state maintains its policies accommodate the prisoner’s religious needs without swinging the door open wide for other religious beliefs, such as:

  • A Muslim’s request that his or her body be washed and shrouded immediately after death

  • A Buddhist’s request that his or her bodily remains untouched for one week after death

Kretzer went on to say that none of this struck him as unduly burdensome and that there seems to be a thread of religious hostility throughout the State’s shifting positions.

The Eleventh Hour

While lower courts declined to stop the convicted killer’s execution over this religious issue, the Supreme Court saw fit to step in, and the execution was halted a bit before 9 PM (the man’s execution had been scheduled for 6 PM). This was not the death row inmate’s first brush with near-death (via execution) – one was due to a change of attorney, and the other was due to the pandemic.

The state’s posturing in response to the final requests of death row inmates remains firm, and the final outcome of this legal battle remains to be seen.

Executions in Texas

Texas has already executed two men in 2021, and it is the only state to have done so. Three men were executed by the federal government prior to the administration change in early 2021. Texas has an additional six men who are scheduled for execution this year (and another set for execution in March of 2022).

Texas and the Death Penalty

Texas has a difficult history in relation to the death penalty, and the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP) points out exactly how difficult. Consider the following:

  • Since 1982, 572 people have been executed in the State of Texas, and 279 of these occurred during Texas Governor Rick Perry’s administration (2001 to 2014). This number is considerably higher than it is for any other governor in the nation’s history.

  • The largest number of executions in Texas for a single year was 40 in 2000.

  • Only Texas, the federal government, and one other state performed any executions during the pandemic.

  • Two of the last men executed in Texas were younger than 21 at the time they committed the crime that landed them on death row.

  • In 2020, Texas conducted the fewest number of executions since 1996 – with only three – but eight additional executions were either withdrawn or stayed due to the pandemic.

  • There are currently 199 people on death row in the State of Texas, and 6 of them are women.

  • Texas has the third-largest number of death row inmates in the nation (after both California and Texas). In early 2019, however, the governor of California declared a moratorium on executions throughout the state.

  • One hundred eighty-five people who were incarcerated on death rows throughout the United States have been exonerated since 1973, and 16 of these people were incarcerated in Texas.

  • It is estimated that the cost of prosecuting an average death penalty case in the U.S. is about three times more expensive than it would be to imprison the inmate in a maximum-security prison for life.

  • In recent years, 11 states have abolished the death sentence altogether (via either legislation or judicial action), and 23 states in total do not allow death sentences. Additionally, there are three states with death penalty moratoriums in place, which brings the total to 26 states in which a death sentence is not currently an option.

Additionally, the Death Penalty Information Center shares pertinent information regarding Texas’ relationship with the death penalty, including:

  • In 2005, Texas added the sentencing option of life without parole in capital cases. Prior to this, juries were required to choose between the death penalty and a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years behind bars.

  • Texas was the first state in the nation to use lethal injections (as a mode of execution) in 1982.

  • Since 1976, Texas has had the dubious distinction of carrying out the most executions in the nation each year.

  • Of the more than 250 counties in Texas, 136 of them have never sent anyone to death row.

  • The Texas clemency process involves providing the governor with clemency authority (under advisement from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which is appointed by the governor), and the governor cannot grant clemency without the Board’s favorable recommendation. The governor, however, is not required to adhere to the Board’s recommendations, and the governor also has the power and discretion to grant someone who is scheduled for execution a 30-day reprieve.

  • The State of Texas implements what is known as the Law of Parties, which means that if an offender is present when a capital crime is committed, he or she can also be sentenced to death as a result of being criminally responsible for the conduct of another.

  • Before a pivotal decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005, Texas executed 13 juveniles.

  • Although the U.S. Supreme Court has prohibited death sentences for those with intellectual disabilities, the Texas legislature has never enacted legal provisions in relation to this important ruling.

  • The Texas Constitution does not grant the governor of Texas the power to impose a moratorium on executions in the state. To do so, the voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment.

Wrongful Conviction

Texas has a number of notable cases that highlight its strong stance in relation to the death penalty, but one of the most notable is the case of Anthony Graves. Graves was released from a Texas prison after 16 years of incarceration in 2010. He had been convicted based on the testimony of the man who claimed Graves had been his accomplice in the murder at hand, Robert Carter. Two weeks prior to Carter’s scheduled execution, he made a statement declaring that he had lied about Graves’ involvement in the murder case in question. Minutes before his execution, Carter again declared Graves’ innocence (as one of his final utterances). In 2006, the conviction against Graves was overturned as a result of prosecutorial misconduct. After investigating the crime, the new prosecutor who had been assigned to Graves’ new trial dropped the charges against him, making the statement that – We found not one piece of credible evidence that links Anthony Graves to the commission of this capital murder . . . He is an innocent man.

Do Not Wait to Consult with an Experienced Killeen Criminal Attorney

If you are facing a criminal charge of any kind, Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard – proudly serving Killeen, Texas – is a focused criminal attorney who dedicates his practice to skillfully advocating for the legal rights – and for the most favorable case resolutions – of clients like you. For more information about what we can do to help you, please do not hesitate to contact us online or call us at 254-501-4040 today.

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