U.S. Supreme Court stays the execution of Ruben Gutierrez

Just an hour before he was scheduled to be executed by the State of Texas, Ruben Gutierrez received a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court. Gutierrez had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt 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.  The Justices granted his Petition for Writ of Certiorari and instructed the District Court to “promptly determine, based on whatever evidence the parties provide, whether serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual advisor the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution.”

Following is a statement from Shawn Nolan, one of Mr. Gutierrez’s attorneys: 

“Today, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution based on Ruben Gutierrez’s challenge to TDCJ’s change of the longstanding practice, upheld in both federal law and constitutional law, of allowing prisoners to have spiritual advisors in the chamber during executions. As a devout Catholic, Mr. Gutierrez’s faith requires the assistance of clergy to help him pass from life into afterlife. 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. 

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.” 

 – Shawn Nolan, Attorney for Ruben Gutierrez; Chief, Capital Habeas Unit, Federal Defender for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
-June 16, 2020

The Order from the U.S. Supreme Court can be found herehttps://tinyurl.com/y9any777

Mr. Gutierrez’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/y9s3dceh

Below is a press release with more information about Mr. Gutierrez’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari:

Ruben Gutierrez, Catholic Bishops Ask U.S. Supreme Court to Allow Chaplain in Texas Execution Chamber

Texas Conference of Catholic 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.) Ruben Gutierrez, who is scheduled to be executed in Texas on Tuesday, June16, 2020, 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 or 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, filed June 15, 2020, 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.”

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.