Supreme Court rules favorably toward inmate requesting priest at execution

shutterstock_529874140_1.jpg U.S. Supreme Court building Credit: Steven Frame/Shutterstock

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled favorably toward a Catholic death row inmate requesting the presence of a priest at his execution.

In a set of orders released on Monday morning, the court vacated a ruling of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court against Ruben Gutierrez, a Catholic death row inmate in Texas challenging the state’s prohibition of chaplains at executions.

In addition to vacating the Fifth Circuit Court ruling, the Supreme Court also sent Gutierrez’s case back to lower courts for reconsideration, in light of findings by a district court that a chaplain inside the state execution chamber wouldn’t present security concerns.

One attorney at the religious freedom legal group Becket said the decision was a win for religious freedom, and called on the state of Texas to stop fighting Gutierrez’s case in court and provide him with a priest at his execution.

Eric Rassbach, attorney at Becket, called the ruling an “important” victory for religious freedom and called on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice “to take the hint and reinstate the centuries-old practice of affording comfort of clergy to the condemned.”

Gutierrez was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of Escolastica Harrison, an 85-year-old woman, during an attempted robbery. He has maintained his innocence, saying he was part of the robbery but did not commit the murder of Harrison. 

He had requested that his prison’s Catholic chaplain be present in the execution chamber at his death. Gutierrez’s request was denied due to a 2019 state execution protocol prohibiting chaplains in the execution chamber. 

He challenged the policy in court, alleging that it violated his rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). 

The Supreme Court ultimately stayed his execution, which had been scheduled for June 16, 2020, instructing the district court to consider the security concerns of a chaplain being present in the execution chamber. The district court later found that “no serious security problems would result” from a chaplain being present in the execution chamber. 

Last summer, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops had called the state’s denial of a chaplain for Gutierrez “an egregious rejection of the possibility of forgiveness and redemption while the state commits the violence of an execution.” 

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