A member of the “Texas 7” gang of escaped prisoners won a reprieve Thursday night from execution for the fatal shooting of a suburban Dallas police officer after claiming his religious freedom would be violated if his Buddhist spiritual adviser wasn’t allowed to be in the death chamber with him.
The U.S. Supreme Court blocked Patrick Murphy’s execution about two hours after he could have been executed.
Murphy’s attorneys had said that Texas prison officials’ efforts to prevent the inmate’s spiritual adviser, a Buddhist priest, from being with him when he is put to death violated Murphy’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Murphy, 57, became a Buddhist almost a decade ago while incarcerated.
Lower courts had rejected Murphy’s argument.
But in a concurring opinion Thursday night, the newest justice on the court, Brett Kavanaugh, said the Texas prison system allows a Christian or Muslim inmate to have a state-employed Christian or Muslim religious adviser present either in the execution room or in the adjacent viewing room. But inmates of other religious denominations who want their religious adviser to be present can have the adviser present only in the viewing room and not in the execution room itself, he said.
“As this Court has repeatedly held, governmental discrimination against religion — in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech — violates the Constitution,” he wrote. “The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations.”
Kavanaugh said Texas can’t move forward with Murphy’s punishment unless the state permits his Buddhist adviser or another Buddhist reverend of the state’s choosing to accompany Murphy in the chamber during the execution.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jeremy Desel the state would review the ruling to determine how to respond.
“I knew there was a thin thread of possibility,” a smiling Murphy said from a holding cell just a few feet from the death chamber after he was told by the warden he received a reprieve.
Murphy was among the inmates who escaped from a South Texas prison in December 2000 and then committed numerous robberies, including the one in which they shot 29-year-old Irving police Officer Aubrey Hawkins 11 times, killing him.
The escaped inmates were arrested a month later in Colorado, ending a six-week manhunt. One of them killed himself as officers closed in and the other six were convicted of killing Hawkins and sentenced to death. Murphy would have been the fifth to be executed. The sixth inmate, Randy Halprin, has not been given an execution date.