Federal judge halts execution on religious grounds

Patrick Murphy

A member of the infamous “Texas 7” prison escape gang will have more time to live. 

On Thursday, a federal judge in Houston granted a stay of execution for Patrick Murphy because the Texas death row inmates' final access to spiritual advisors of their faith differs for Christians and Buddhists.

The U.S. Supreme Court initially blocked Murphy's execution in March, saying his religious rights would be violated if no Buddhist chaplain was present with him in the death chamber.

In response, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ended its practice of allowing state-employed chaplains in the chamber to pray for inmates. The agency only employed Christian and Muslim clerics. Often, a Christian advisor would be in the chamber with the prisoner set to die, reading quietly from the Bible with one hand on the inmate's leg as lethal drugs were injected.

However, despite the change to TDCJ policy, Murphy’s appeal attorney Jeff Newberry continues to argue that his client’s religious rights are being violated. Newberry said TDCJ will not give Murphy access to his spiritual advisor in the final hours before he is scheduled to be executed.

Only state employees are allowed access to a death row inmate in the final two hours before their execution time.

“Mr. Murphy is being treated differently because of his religion,” Newberry told The Item. “He should be allowed to get the same special visits with a spiritual advisor of his religion. The TDCJ policy is still hostile towards religion.”

U.S. District Judge George C. Hanks, who granted a stay of Wednesday's execution, said that, "Murphy's deposition demonstrates valid concerns about the current TDCJ policy."

Murphy has said he felt "an underlying current of a little bit of pressure ... to make a last-minute conversion to Christianity" despite his Buddhist beliefs, court records show.

Hanks proposed ending "denominational discrimination" by "ending all contact with all clergy at the same hour for all inmates or (by) allowing all inmates equal access to their chosen spiritual advisers before they enter the death chamber."

A date will be set for new arguments in this case in federal court.

Murphy and six inmates escaped a San Antonio-area prison in 2000 and committed numerous robberies, during which they killed Irving police Officer Aubrey Hawkins.

Murphy, who remained in the car in front of an Irving sporting goods store, listening to a police scanner while the other six men went inside to rob it, according to court records. He and another escapee later said that Murphy used a two-way radio to warn the others to flee when he heard that police were on their way. As Hawkins began to drive to the back of the store where the other robbers were, Murphy fled the scene on the instruction of the group’s leader.

The group escaped to Colorado where on member subsequently killed himself as police closed in.

A jury convicted Murphy of capital murder in 2003 under the Texas Law of Parties. He was the sixth and final member of the group sentenced to death in the case.

Four members of the group have been executed, while Murphy and Randy Halprin await execution.

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