Texas schedules first execution of 2022 implicating pending SCOTUS religious freedom case
Texas schedules first execution of 2022 implicating pending SCOTUS religious freedom case

A Texas judge issued an amended execution order Tuesday for Carl Wayne Buntion and set his execution date for April 21, 2022. The scheduling of his execution raises issues of religious expression and implicates the pending Supreme Court case Ramirez v. Collier.

Buntion was convicted of killing a police officer in 1990 during a traffic stop and was sentenced to death in 1991. According to the Supreme Court, Buntion has spent the last 20 years in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. He is now the oldest death row inmate in Texas.

In 2021, Buntion appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States and asked the Justices to declare his 30 years on death row a cruel and unusual punishment. The Court denied Buntion’s petition but Justice Stephen Breyer noted that Buntion’s confinement “calls into question the constitutionality of the death penalty and reinforces the need for this Court, or other courts, to consider that question in an appropriate case.”

In proceedings before a Harris County court, Buntion’s attorney, David Dow, reported that Buntion planned to ask a spiritual advisor to lay hands on him as he is executed. In many sects of Christianity, the laying on of hands is a long-standing and important practice.

The Supreme Court is currently considering whether a death row inmate may make such a request in the case of Ramirez v. Collier. Petitioner John Henry Ramirez is also a death row inmate in Texas. He argues that Texas’ refusal to allow a spiritual advisor to lay hands on him or recite prayers and scripture as he is executed substantially burdens his free exercise of religion as protected by the Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). His scheduled execution in September 2021, was stayed pending the Supreme Court’s decision.

During oral arguments in November, US Deputy Solicitor General Eric Feigin argued that both vocalizations and physical touching from a spiritual advisor could disrupt the execution process and block witnesses and medical professionals from properly viewing the execution. Ramirez’s counsel, Seth Kretzer, argued that security and medical concerns are simply not presented by the facts in Ramirez’s case because Texas’ facilities are large enough to accommodate a spiritual advisor. In his closing arguments, Kretzer also noted that it would be unfair to restrict spiritual advisors who are not Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) employees because members of the medical and drug teams are also not TDCJ employees.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh argued that it would be “awkward” for judges to determine whether an inmate’s religious beliefs are “sincere.” Kretzer replied that judges make “credibility determinations” daily.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the denial of Ramirez’s request “a cruel violation of his religious liberties.” Sister Helen Prejean, a death row spiritual advisor, said she believes Texas’ current execution protocol “violates basic principles of human dignity and religious liberty.”

The Supreme Court may rule on Ramirez before Buntion’s execution date arrives. Dow said the “simplest solution” would have been for the Harris County court to “sign nothing” now and wait for the Supreme Court ruling.