State bans chaplains from execution chamber

Photo courtesy of Texas Department of Criminal JusticeThe state of Texas execution chamber in the Huntsville "Walls" Unit. 

Prison chaplains have been banned from the death chamber. 

The Texas Tribune reports that less than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court halted an execution on religious grounds, state officials have announced that all chaplains and ministers may "observe the execution only from the witness rooms." Currently, friends and family of the murder victim and prisoner, as well as media, are allowed to watch executions through a glass window in small rooms adjacent to the death chamber inside the Huntsville "Walls" Unit.

The high court halted the execution of Patrick Murphy, a member of the infamous "Texas Seven," because the department did not allow him to have a Buddhist chaplain in the room with him at the time of his scheduled death. The state only allows prison employees in the death chamber, and only Christian and Muslim clerics are employed with the state. During executions, a chaplain will often stand at the feet of the prisoner and rest a hand on his leg mouthing silent prayers.

The court halted Murphy’s execution hours after it was originally scheduled to begin, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh issued an opinion declaring that the exclusion of a Buddhist adviser was “religious discrimination.” The ruling came less than two months after the same court ruled against stopping the execution of a black prisoner in Alabama who requested a Muslim imam at his execution. In his opinion, Kavanaugh proposed two alternatives for the Texas prison system: Don’t allow any chaplains into the execution chambers, or allow chaplains of all religions.

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said the policy change is effective immediately.

"TDCJ Chaplain(s) will continue to be available to an offender until they are transferred to the execution chamber. The chaplain will also be present in the viewing room if requested," said the spokesman, Jeremy Desel.

Under the policy, prisoners will still be able to meet with a TDCJ chaplain or a spiritual adviser “who has the appropriate credentials” on the day of execution.

Murphy, 57, is one of seven in a group of escaped prisoners who committed multiple robberies and killed a police officer in 2000 during more than a month on the run. During a robbery on Christmas Eve, Murphy served as the lookout and said he left the scene on the instruction of the group’s leader before any shots were fired at 31-year-old Officer Aubrey Hawkins. Court records state that he had used a two-way radio to warn the others to flee the scene when he heard that police were on their way.

Murphy is criminally culpable for the murder under Texas' law of parties, under which accomplices and triggermen are treated alike. Six of the seven men were sentenced to death (four have been executed), and one killed himself after police surrounded them weeks after the murder.

About a month before he was scheduled to die, Murphy's lawyers requested that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice allow his Buddhist spiritual adviser into the execution chamber with him, but TDCJ declined, claiming a chaplain needed to be employed by the department. When a follow-up request was sent for any Buddhist adviser to be allowed into the room, the department didn't respond. In the days before his execution, the lawyers then took the issue to the courts, claiming the policy violated his rights.

The high court's decision to block the Texas execution came just weeks after it decided differently in a similar death row appeal out of Alabama. Domineque Ray, the Alabama inmate, appealed to stop his execution after he was told he could not have a Muslim spiritual adviser in the chamber with him. The high court rejected his appeal, citing the late timing of his filing, and he was executed in February.

In his March opinion in the Texas case, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested the timing of Murphy's appeal had been acceptable.

"As this Court has repeatedly held, governmental discrimination against religion — in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech — violates the Constitution," Kavanaugh wrote in the Texas case.

Texas has an execution scheduled for April 11 when Mark Robertson who was convicted in the 1989 double homicide of 81-year-old Edna Brau 19-year-old Sean Jason Hill during a robbery.

Joseph Brown with The Huntsville Item along with Elizabeth Byrne and Emma Platoff with The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.

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