The US Supreme Court stayed the execution of Texas inmate Ruben Gutierrez Tuesday. The order came only an hour before the execution was scheduled to take place and was granted in response to Gutierrez’s argument that his First Amendment rights were violated by the state’s refusal to grant his request to have a Christian chaplain present during his execution.
Gutierrez was convicted of fatally stabbing a woman in 1998 and was scheduled to die by lethal injection on June 16. He has maintained his innocence since his conviction and accused the two burglars present of committing the murder. Gutierrez has also continually sought for the implementation of DNA testing in his case.
On June 9 a judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas granted a stay of execution citing concerns over the violation of First Amendment rights, the lack of DNA testing, and the effects COVID-19 may have had on the judicial process. However, on June 12 the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated the stay of execution and reinstated the original execution date, citing a failure to show a likelihood of success on his claims. The Texas Attorney General celebrated that decision and accused the district court of having “abused its discretion.”
Texas often granted requests to have Christian chaplains in the execution room until last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Murphy v. Collier. That case concerned a Buddhist inmate who was also seeking access to spiritual council. The ruling suggested that inmates of every religion should be allowed spiritual advisers, or none should be allowed at all. In response to that decision, Texas banned all religious advisers.
Tuesday’s order stayed Gutierrez’s execution until a petition for a writ of certiorari can be ruled on by the court. However, the order also stipulated that the “District Court should promptly 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.” This move may signal a coming challenge against Texas’s limitations on spiritual advisors regardless of the outcome of this specific case.
Gutierrez’s execution would have been the first in Texas since February 6 when the state decided to stop all executions because of the global pandemic. Last year the Supreme Court narrowly rejected an appeal to stay the execution of a Muslim man in Alabama who was seeking the presence of his imam as a spiritual advisor during his execution. The disparity between these two appeals has not yet been addressed by the court but has already sparked sharp criticism for the apparent Christian bias present in the rulings.