U.S. District Court stays execution of Patrick Murphy, upheld by 5th Circuit

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has upheld the stay of execution granted to Patrick Murphy by a federal district judge on November 7. The state will not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which means Murphy will not be put to death tonight (November 13, 2019) as scheduled. It’s the second time this year his execution has been halted.

“We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting Murphy’s stay. We agree with the district court’s implicit finding that Murphy has a strong likelihood of success on the merits of his claim that the [state] policy violates his rights,” the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

Background
On November 7, a U.S. District Court Judge stayed the execution of Patrick Murphy, who was scheduled to be executed on November 13. This is the second time Murphy, who is Buddhist, has been granted a stay because of religious discrimination. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court halted his execution because his request to have a Buddhist priest instead of a Christian chaplain in the execution chamber had been denied by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Reacting to the U.S. Supreme Court stay, the State of Texas then banned all chaplains from the chamber.

Murphy was granted this second stay after arguing that Texas’ execution procedures still discriminate against non-Christian inmates. While no clergy are allowed to be present in the execution chamber, chaplains who are employed by TDCJ have access to inmates up until the time they enter the chamber. Religious advisors not employed by TDCJ can only meet with inmates from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. on the day of the execution. TDCJ only employs Christian and Muslim chaplains. The State claims the protocol does not favor any certain religion and their chaplains can be helpful to inmates who practice a variety of religions. However, according to the Texas Tribune, the chaplains employed by TDCJ said “they either wouldn’t or were not sure if they would engage in Buddhist chants with an inmate.”

In granting the stay of execution on November 7, 2019, U.S. District Judge George Hanks Jr., who serves in the Southern District of Texas, wrote that Murphy had demonstrated valid concerns about TDCJ’s execution policy:

The concerns raised by the amended complaint’s focus on the pre-execution procedure are as compelling as those in the original complaint. If Murphy were Christian, he would have the benefit of faith-specific spiritual support until he entered the execution chamber; as a Buddhist he is denied that benefit.

With the stay of execution, Judge Hanks said the court will “explore and resolve serious factual concerns about the balance between Murphy’s religious rights and the prison’s valid concerns for security.”

Murphy was sentenced to death for the murder of Officer Aubrey Hawkins. He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2003 under Texas’ law of parties. This law holds a person criminally responsible for the actions of another if they enter into a conspiracy to commit a felony that results in a death even if they do not participate in either the felony or the murder.

In December 2000, Murphy and six other inmates escaped from a maximum-security prison south of San Antonio, where he was serving a 50-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault with a deadly weapon.  George Rivas, the ringleader who plotted the escape of the “Texas 7”, admitted to shooting Officer Hawkins.  Five guns played a role in the murder.  According to his attorneys, Murphy did not want to take part in the robbery of the Oshman’s and was waiting in front of the store in a parked vehicle.  After informing the other members of the “Texas 7” that Office Hawkins had arrived on the scene, Murphy drove to a nearby apartment complex. Rivas and three other men have been executed by the State of Texas; another member of the “Texas 7” took his own life to avoid capture. Murphy is the second to last person convicted of the murder of Officer Hawkins who remains on death row.  Randy Halprin was scheduled to be executed on October 10, 2019 but received a stay from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in light of new evidence that his 2003 trial was tainted by the anti-Semitic bias of Dallas Judge Vickers Cunningham.  Judge Cunningham also presided over the trial of Patrick Murphy.