Citing disruption and risk caused by COVID-19, the urgency of DNA testing in his case, and the disputed issue of allowing a chaplain into the execution chamber, attorneys for Ruben Gutierrez have requested that Texas Governor Greg Abbott issue a 30-day reprieve in the case rather than proceed with Mr. Gutierrez’s scheduled execution tomorrow, on June 16, 2020.
The reprieve request, dated June 15, 2020, and delivered this afternoon, details how new prison conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic “deprived Mr. Gutierrez of his right to counsel” (p. 2) and “hampered counsel’s ability to prepare an adequate clemency application and other late-stage litigation.” (p. 2)
The letter also notes that Huntsville prison, which houses Texas’ execution chamber, has high rates of COVID-19 cases and spreading infection, and that the “situation in Huntsville is dangerous, and expecting people who do not live there—including Ruben Gutierrez’s family, his legal team, his religious adviser, and any witnesses from the State who wish to attend—to travel there risks further spread of the coronavirus.” (p. 2)
Importantly, the reprieve request notes that “Mr. Gutierrez has always maintained that he did not kill Escolastica Harrison, a claim he expects DNA testing will support. We ask that you grant a thirty-day reprieve so that testing may occur.” (p. 4)
Finally, citing the prisoner’s faith, the letter notes, “Mr. Gutierrez is a devout Catholic. He feels both a personal desire and a faith-based need to have spiritual aid during his execution. We ask that you grant a thirty-day reprieve so that TDCJ may be given time to revise its policy and return to its longstanding practice of allowing a chaplain in the chamber.” (p. 2) Earlier today, the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops filed an amicus brief in support of Mr. Gutierrez’s petition at the U.S. Supreme Court (more information in the press release below.)
The letter requesting a 30-day reprieve for Mr. Gutierrez can be accessed here: https://tinyurl.com/ya9v86ze
For Immediate Release: June 15, 2020
Contact: Laura.Burstein@Squirepb.com, 202-669-3411
Ruben Gutierrez, Catholic Bishops Ask U.S. Supreme Court to Allow Chaplain in Texas Execution Chamber
Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops Urge the Court to Intervene Before Tuesday’s Scheduled Execution, Stating TDCJ “is placing a direct, irrevocable prohibition on [Mr. Gutierrez’s] sincere religious exercise”
(Washington, D.C.) Today, Ruben Gutierrez, who is scheduled to be executed in Texas on Tuesday at 6 p.m. CT, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay his execution in order to consider his request to allow a Christian chaplain in the execution chamber, a request that was routine in hundreds of Texas executions until April 2019, when the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) changed the rules. Mr. Gutierrez’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/y9s3dceh and Application for Stay of Execution here https://tinyurl.com/yafhg2s8
Supporting Mr. Gutierrez’s petition, also today, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (TCCB) filed an amicus brief, stating “From Christianity’s beginning, priests have been present at the time of death to hear confessions, offer the Eucharist and administer last rites. See, e.g., Catechism of the Catholic Church §§ 1524-1525 (concerning viaticum administered to those “at th[e] moment of ‘passing over’ to the Father”). The Catholic Catechism teaches over 1 billion Catholics, consistent with historic Christian tradition, that the final moments offer a unique final chance to prepare for “our heavenly homeland” and for pardon and redemption.” (p. 6)
“TDCJ is not merely making Gutierrez’s religious practice more difficult. It is placing a direct, irrevocable prohibition on his sincere religious exercise, and at the most critical time for such exercise—when the soul is departing this world for the next.” (p.7) Amicus Brief of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops in Support of Ruben Gutierrez can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/yde6wydh
Last July, nearly 200 Texas faith leaders urged TDCJ to keep chaplains in the execution chamber. In an interfaith statement sent to top TDCJ officials, faith leaders representing more than a dozen traditions stated, “placing a wall between a prisoner and clergy violates the religious liberty that has characterized our nation since its founding.” The Texas faith leader letter can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/ycug5j86
“Through hundreds of previous executions, the state of Texas has recognized that people being executed have the right to be in the presence of religious advisors when they face the end of their lives,” said Shawn Nolan, one of Mr. Gutierrez’s attorneys.
“Mr. Gutierrez has that same right. Last year, in the face of a religious discrimination lawsuit, Texas state officials decided to strip prisoners of this sacred access to a religious advisor when this spiritual human connection is needed most – at the end of one’s life. In a case in which the state has repeatedly refused to test available DNA evidence, to carry out an execution in this manner is simply atrocious,” said Mr. Nolan.
In the cert petition, Mr. Gutierrez argues the TDCJ must provide Mr. Gutierrez access to clergy in the death chamber, not only as guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, but also under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law passed in 2000. As explained in the petition, “prior to March 28, 2019, Texas allowed inmates undergoing execution to have a state-employed chaplain (all of whom were Christian or Muslim) present in the execution chamber.” (p. ii). Texas changed its policy on April 2, 2019, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision of March 28. 2019 staying Texas row prisoner Patrick Murphy’s scheduled execution to consider his claim that the policy discriminated against Buddhist prisoners like him.
On Tuesday, June 9th, Brownsville Federal District Court Judge Hilda Tagle stayed the June 16th scheduled execution of Mr. Gutierrez, based on his repeated requests for DNA testing and his request to have a Christian chaplain in the execution chamber. Texas appealed the ruling to the Fifth Circuit where a three-judge panel lifted the stay on Friday night.
The District Court’s Stay Order is here: https://tinyurl.com/ya6nvpyw
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Brownsville Division Memorandum and Order: https://tinyurl.com/yandg3bk
If you have questions about Mr. Gutierrez’s case, or wish to speak to Mr. Gutierrez’s attorneys, please contact Laura.Burstein@Squirepb.com or 202-669-3411.