Patrick Murphy, a 58-year-old Pure Land Buddhist and Texas death row inmate, has been given a second stay of execution and has also won further support from a religious rights group. The stay of execution came on 7 November, after US District Judge George Hanks Jr. decided that the state of Texas had not addressed new concerns about Murphy’s religious liberty. Two days later, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an amicus curiae, or friend of the court brief in Murphy’s favor, reiterating his right to have a Buddhist priest present at the time of his execution.
In March, the US Supreme Court stopped Murphy’s execution shortly before it was scheduled to take place. The court did so based on religious grounds, as the state of Texas allows Christian or Muslim inmates to have a religious official present during execution, but did not extend this right to followers of other religions.
“As this Court has repeatedly held, governmental discrimination against religion—in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech—violates the Constitution,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion to the court order in March. (Texas Tribune)
In response to the earlier stay of execution, the state changed its policy to disallow all spiritual advisers in the execution chamber, believing that this created fair grounds for all prisoners. However, Murphy went back to court, arguing that further restrictions still prevented him from meeting his spiritual adviser, Rev. Hui-Yong Shih, while Christians had access to chaplains employed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
The TDCJ in turn argued that their chaplains, who were encouraged to learn about many religions, could serve all faiths equally because they listen to, assist, and offer a calming presence for all inmates, regardless of religious affiliation. However, Murphy’s attorney stated that this still violated Murphy’s right to practice his Buddhist religion.
“Because Murphy believes he can be reborn in the Pure Land and work toward enlightenment only if he is able to remain focused on Buddha while dying, and that being able to chant with his spiritual advisor in the execution chamber would greatly assist him in maintaining this focus, TDCJ’s newly hostile policy violates Murphy’s First Amendment rights,” wrote Murphy’s attorney, David Dow. (Texas Tribune)
On 9 November, non-profit organization, The Becket Group, filed a brief with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals supporting the claim that Murphy has a First Amendment right to access a priest of his own faith during his execution.
“This case is about a liberty interest older than the nation: the right of a condemned man to the comfort of clergy leading up to, and at the moment of, his death,” the group wrote. “The Free Exercise Clause presumptively protects this right, as does RLUIPA [Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act]. The standard for defeating this fundamental right is appropriately high, and Texas cannot meet it here. Texas has allowed this comfort to the condemned in the past and has not shown why it cannot afford the same to Murphy.” (Law and Crime)
The Becket Group is asking the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, Louisiana, to affirm the District Court’s stay of execution or to force Texas to provide Murphy with access to Buddhist clergy during his execution.
Murphy and six other inmates, known as the “Texas Seven,” escaped from a maximum-security state prison in 2000 and were at large for more than a month after killing police officer Aubrey Hawkins during a crime spree on Christmas Eve.
In an interview this month, Murphy was asked what his last words would be if the execution were to go ahead. He responded that, “I will apologize. That would be my first, opening statement, to apologize to the family [of officer Hawkins]. Then I will go on to say my goodbyes to my friends and family.” (Houston Chronicle)
Federal judge delays execution of “Texas Seven” prisoner over claims of religious discrimination (Texas Tribune)
Religious Liberty Group: Death Row Inmate Cannot Be Deprived of Buddhist Priest at Execution (Law and Crime)
LISTEN: Yoga, Buddha and death row: An interview with Patrick Murphy (Houston Chronicle)