Texas death row inmate granted last minute reprieve by US Supreme Court after chaplain barred from execution chamber

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Danielle Zoellner
·3 min read
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Texas Department of Corrections
Texas Department of Corrections

A Texas death row inmate was granted a last minute reprieve by the US Supreme Court following a new state policy preventing clergy members from entering the execution chambers.

The order from the highest court in the country came about one hour before Ruben Gutierrez, 42, was scheduled for execution by lethal injection at Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville on Tuesday.

Guiterrez was convicted of fatally stabbing Escolastica Harrison in 1998 when attempting to steal the $600,000 she hid in her Brownsville home, according to prosecutors.

Texas banned all chaplains of any religion from entering an execution chamber in April 2019 after the Supreme Court allowed the execution of a man on death row who was denied the request of having his Buddhist spiritual adviser with him.

Guiterrez’s lawyers sought a 30-day reprieve from the Supreme Court and Texas Governor Greg Abbott regarding the inability for the inmate to have a clergy member with him during his final moments. The inmate has also long argued DNA evidence could prove his innocence from his convicted crime.

“As a devout Catholic, Mr Gutierrez’s faith requires the assistance of clergy to help him pass from life into afterlife,” his lawyer, Shawn Nolan, said. “The Texas Department of Criminal Justice changed its policy for its own convenience, but spiritual comfort at the time of death is not a convenience; it’s a protected legal right.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argued the new policy did not substantially impede on an inmate's ability to interact with clergy members prior to their execution.

Under the new policy, clergy members are allowed to visit with inmates on their execution date up until they're transfered into the death chamber. The clergy members are also allowed to watch from the witness room.

Kim Kardashian West, who’s used her platform in recent years to advocate for prison reform, hailed the decision by the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

“Thank you Supreme Court of the United States for granting a Stay of Execution for Ruben Gutierrez! Now his case will go back to the lower courts to decide the issues with his case,” she wrote.

Gutierrez and his lawyers are seeking DNA testing on nail scrapings and loose hair from the victim, as well as a shirt belonging to a family member and other clothing items. The man said that while he helped organise the robbery, he was not involved in the woman’s murder and the DNA testing would prove his innocence.

“Mr Gutierrez’s case is also gravely concerning because of the urgent need to test the DNA evidence in his case. For years, Mr Gutierrez has sought such testing in order to prove he did not commit the crime for which he was sentenced to death. The state has fought such testing at every turn, but surely the public interest would be best served by allowing DNA testing while the Court considers Mr Gutierrez’s case, in order to prevent a wrongful execution in the future,” his lawyer said.

If this DNA testing would be approved prior to his new execution date remains unknown.

Texas, the US’ busiest death penalty state, has halted all executions for the last four months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Gutierrez’s execution was the latest to be rescheduled or postponed.

Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz said in a statement the decision by the Supreme Court “has once again denied justice”. He added the temporary stay only “delayed [Gutierrez’s] ultimate fate”.

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