Death Watch: Faith in Executions

Religious beliefs barred a potential juror from Christopher Young’s trial. Did that cause his sentencing?

Original story: Possible religious discrimination might grant a Texas death row inmate another trial. Christopher Young filed an application for relief with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on July 2 [see update below], arguing that the discrimination against a potential juror, based on her church affiliation, tainted his original trial.

Young was 21 when he shot and killed Hasmukh Patel during an attempted robbery of a gas station. Before his trial, a woman was struck from the jury based "solely" on her affiliation with a Baptist church where "some members" ministered to prisoners, because the prosecution believed this could imply that she favored the defendant. Today, Young's counsel claims the potential juror's personal beliefs were never questioned, which was allowed under Casarez v. State, where the CCA held that peremptory challenges made on the basis of a potential juror's religious affiliation do not violate the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

The latest appeal, however, was granted in light of 2011's Devoe v. State, when the CCA ruled that Casarez should be read as only "challenges made on the basis of personal religious belief are permissible." Young's lawyer Jeff Newberry said "the whole case hinges on the 2011 decision being the new law." The Alliance Defending Freedom, a public interest organization that protects First Amendment rights, along with a group of 23 "Faith Leaders," have filed amicus briefs in support of Young's request for a new trial. According to one, if the court upholds its original decision, it will "essentially create a rule that says it is permissible for the citizens of Texas to be discriminated against in the courtroom for freely exercising their right to affiliate with a particular church."

Young's attorneys also filed a clemency petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on June 25, referencing Thomas Whitaker, who received clemency in February ("Justice for Whom?" Feb. 16). That outcome has inspired more Texas lawyers to seek clemency for their death row clients, but Newberry believes the similarities between his client's case and Whitaker's set Young's apart. As Whitaker's father asked the state to spare his son's life, Patel's son Mitesh has asked the state to spare Young's.

The petition states Mitesh told Young's counsel that "boys who lose their fathers traumatically have a fifty-fifty shot of being successful despite that trauma. Mitesh was; Chris was not." (Young was a child when his own father was murdered.) Now, Mitesh wants Young's sentence commuted so that Young can be a "father to his daughters." The petition asks the board to focus on the "important facts." Aside from Mitesh's plea, it states Young "is truly remorseful," and that his life has "positive value, both as a father and as a former gang member who can counsel other inmates." Newberry expects the board to vote on Young's case on Friday, July 13.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Young's last appeal in January. If rulings continue in the state's favor, Young will be executed on Tuesday, July 17. Already, Texas has executed seven inmates this year, with another six scheduled before November.

Update: The CCA denied both Young’s request for a new trial and a stay of execution on Tuesday. The court’s response claims Young’s argument is incorrect: Young’s suit hinged on the Devoe case enacting a new legal reading of the law, but according to the court, the “legal basis” for Young’s claim existed at the time of his direct appeal and initial application for relief. The court references the 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky (wherein the Supreme Court ruled that removing a potential juror based on race violates the Equal Protection Clause) and 1994’s J.E.B. v. Alabama (which ruled dismissing a potential juror based on gender also violates the clause). Because of these two cases, Young’s application was dismissed “without reviewing the merits.”

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Death Watch, Christopher Young, Hasmukh Patel, Jeff Newberry, Mitesh Patel, Alliance Defending Freedom, Thomas Whitaker

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