On Nov. 7, District Judge George Hanks Jr. stopped Patrick Murphy’s execution, scheduled for Nov. 13, over the same issue that derailed his lethal injection last spring: access to a Buddhist spiritual advisor to chant with him in his final moments.
Spiritual advisors, or “chaplains” as they’re known in Huntsville, have been part of death row for generations. Their presence at the side of a condemned man in his final moments was a tradition respected by both the state and those it put to death. Being Buddhist, Murphy requested a Buddhist chaplain when scheduled for execution on March 28, 2019. But the rules of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice allowed only those employed by the department to enter the death chamber and the TDCJ only employed Christian chaplains. So Murphy’s request was rejected.
His lawyers petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the execution, saying their client’s religious rights had been violated, and the high court agreed. Justice Brett Kavanaugh issued the opinion: Texas officials either had to allow chaplains of all faiths into the execution chamber, or none. The TDCJ made the easy choice – it would no longer allow a chaplain to comfort the condemned man as he died.
Kavanaugh was pleased with the solution he’d helped broker. “This Court’s stay facilitated the prompt resolution of a significant religious equality problem with the State’s execution protocol and should alleviate any future litigation delays or disruptions,” he wrote. It wasn’t as simple as that.
On April 28, Murphy’s lawyers filed an amended complaint that alleges the TDCJ’s new policy violates the same constitutional rights the old one did – but by denying him access to a spiritual advisor in the moments leading up to his execution rather than during it. That’s because TDCJ only allows a condemned man access to a spiritual advisor of his choice between 3-4pm on the day of his execution. If he wants a spiritual advisor with him until his 6pm execution, he must choose one employed by TDCJ, of which there are three. The problem is, they’re all Christians.
In response to Murphy’s motion, the TDCJ promised that these chaplains would listen to all inmates, regardless of religious affiliation. Reassuringly, they stated, “Texas protocol prohibits TDCJ clergy from pressuring an inmate to change his religious preference.” (However, Murphy is quoted in the brief saying that before his delayed March execution he felt “an underlying current of a little bit of pressure . . . to make a last-minute conversion to Christianity, maybe, you know, confess my sins and accept Christ.”)
Murphy’s lawyers interviewed the three chaplains to ask how they would handle the needs of those with different beliefs. “None of the three would recite the declaration of faith with a Muslim inmate if asked to do so because each believes doing so would violate their faith,” the brief states. The three chaplains were asked how they would respond if asked to chant on behalf of a Buddhist. “I could only pray according to my faith and my belief,” the first said. “If they have something that’s different – for instance, Buddhists, I don’t know their chants. I don’t know what they say, so I couldn’t offer them any prayers.” The second said he wouldn’t chant with a Buddhist prisoner “[b]ecause it wouldn’t be something that I believe or something that I would practice. So I don’t know that I could do it.” The third said he was not sure.
In granting the stay, Judge Hanks suggested the issue could be resolved by ending contact with clergy at the same hour for all inmates or allowing them equal access to their chosen spiritual advisor before entering the execution chamber.
Murphy was the getaway driver for the Texas Seven, a group of inmates who broke out of prison in December 2000 and robbed a sporting goods store on Christmas Eve. In the process they shot down police officer Aubrey Hawkins when he responded to the alarm. Murphy was sentenced to death in 2003 for his role in the murder.
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