The execution of a Texas man was stayed by the Supreme Court, Thursday, after the State of Texas denied and inmate’s request that a Buddhist priest be allowed to be in the death chamber during the execution.
In 2000, seven inmates broke out of a maximum-security prison southwest of San Antonio and robbed a sporting goods store, killing a police officer in the process. Patrick Murphy was one of the so-called Texas 7, and Thursday night he was supposed to have been executed for his involvement in that murder. But last month, Murphy’s attorneys request that the Buddhist priest be allowed to witness his execution. Texas prison officials’ rejection of the request came despite a policy that accommodates similar requests from condemned Christians and Muslims.
Murphy’s lawyers made a last-minute appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in a 7-2 vote, the justices blocked Murphy’s execution so that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice can reconsider his request.
Stephen Vladeck is a constitutional law scholar at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. He says the court’s decision is confusing because it made an opposite ruling in a recent Alabama case: it allowed the execution of a Muslim inmate to go forward after the state denied his request for an imam to be in the death chamber with him.
“The Supreme Court had some egg on its face,” Vladeck says. “The decision last month was very heavily criticized. I think, perhaps, some of the conservative justices who formed the 5-4 majority in that case were surprised at the depth [of the blowback.]”
Vladeck says three justices have “switched sides” in the decision about Murphy: Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh.
The decision is part of a court tradition of protecting religious liberties for people facing execution, Vladeck says. He says these protections may seem counterintuitive, but the underlying goal is to make state-mandated death as “humane as possible.” But Vladeck says the tradition has also had its critics, including former Associate Justice Harry Blackmun.
“If we’re gonna have the death penalty, is it worth putting all of this effort – are we just basically rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic when we’re focusing on these claims?” Vladeck says, describing Blackmun’s critique.
Vladeck says Murphy’s case is more about religious liberty than the death penalty because regardless of the outcome, he still faces execution. But he says even those on death row are still afforded constitutional rights.
“We do not summarily execute people in this country … we are not legally supposed to be able to torture people when we put them in the execution chamber,” Vladeck says.
Scholars have written about the constitutional rights of those sentenced to death, including in the book, “Courting Death,” by Carol and Jordan Steiker. Vladeck says the Steikers argue that it’s important that death row inmates are afforded constitutional rights even if their “ultimate fate is not gonna change.”
A central question the justices considered in the Murphy case is whether the government should play an active role when it comes to Americans’ religious liberties, or if it should remain neutral. Vladeck says Justice Kavanaugh wrote that the State of Texas could choose to provide no religious representatives at all in the execution chamber.
“The State of Texas has the choice about how to treat religion equally,” Vladeck says.
It just can’t decide which ones it’s gonna favor.
Written by Caroline Covington.