Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denying Young's appeal.
SAN ANTONIO — Standing in front of the grandiose facade of the cathedral in the city’s main plaza, Valerie Harris begged Gov. Greg Abbott to spare her nephew’s life.
“The man who went into the prison years ago is the not the same man,” she said through the sweat and tears that streamed down her face. “If you need a body, if you need a sacrifice, I would trade my life any day of the week for what’s inside Christopher Young.”
Harris, a pastor and spiritual adviser to her nephew on death row, was one of several faith leaders who came out in the hot July sun Tuesday to call for a stop of Young’s execution — set exactly one week later. Young, 34, is set to be executed next Tuesday evening in the 2004 murder of store owner Hasmukh Patel. Patel's son also joined the group, calling for mercy for the man who killed his father.
Young's advocates have placed their hope in a long-shot attempt to halt the execution based on his life on death row and a new appeal that claims his trial was tainted by religious discrimination — a potential juror was struck from the pool because her church group was associated with a prison ministry program, according to the court brief.
Young was 21 when he shot Patel in the chest while robbing Patel's San Antonio mini-mart and dry cleaner store, according to court records. A Bexar County jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to death in February 2006. After his more than 12 years on death row, however, his aunt and his lawyers say he is a changed man.
“He has educated himself, become grounded in his religion, actively parents his daughters, and mentors troubled young people beyond the prison walls,” said his lawyers, Jeff Newberry and David Dow, in a joint statement last month upon filing his clemency petition to the parole board. “He is deeply remorseful for killing Mr. Patel.”
The Bexar County District’s Attorney Office, which prosecuted Young, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Patel’s son, 36-year-old Mitesh, also joined the clemency petition, which asks the parole board to recommend that the governor change Young's death sentence to one of life in prison or temporarily halt the execution. Mitesh Patel attended the small rally Tuesday and said Young’s execution wouldn’t “take us toward any positive outcome.”
Under the shade of a tree in the plaza, Patel said that over time, he was able to forgive Young for killing his father, and that Young’s compassion for his daughters was a main reason he spoke out against the execution. Patel lost his father in his early 20s, and Young was only 8 when his father was murdered as well, according to the clemency petition. Patel has said he doesn’t want Young’s daughters to grow up without a father, too.
The son also mentioned Young’s work on death row trying to help other people.
“He actually has a desire to break the chain of other people possibly in his shoes from continuing down that path,” Mitesh Patel said. “My family and I would rather see that come to fruition because that speaks better to what my dad stood for.”
Young’s case has garnered widespread attention, in part due to a social media campaign and video interviews of Young on death row. An online petition started by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty supporting Young’s clemency petition had garnered more than 23,000 signatures as of early Tuesday afternoon.
“I think that if I would have never came to death row, I wouldn’t be the individual that I am today,” Young said in one of the videos. “I wouldn’t be mature, I wouldn’t be able to explain to my daughters life, the appreciation of life.”
He said he was running with gangs as a young adult and that, ironically, death row saved his life. Otherwise, he would likely already be dead from gang violence.
“I’m actually happy I came here first, because the person I am today, I’m really, really satisfied with,” he said.
The parole board is set to vote on Young’s clemency petition Friday, Newberry said, but the board hardly ever recommends relief. Young’s lawyers also filed a new appeal this month in the Court of Criminal Appeals, arguing that a potential juror was removed by the prosecution because of her ties to a church that had some members who worked as prison ministers.
The filing said court precedent allows for potential jurors to be struck for personal religious beliefs, but not that of a religious group.
“The basis for the State’s challenge removing [the potential juror] was neither her personal religious belief nor her personal religious activity but solely her mere affiliation with a church, some of whose members ministered to prisoners,” Newberry wrote in the filing.
The Rev. Paul Ziese, from a local Lutheran church, spoke outside the church Tuesday on behalf of more than 15 other faith leaders. He mentioned that the group members don’t all agree on the death penalty, but that they are joined by their belief against religious discrimination.
The court rejected the appeal later Tuesday, but Newberry said at the rally that the legal team would raise the issue in federal court as well. There are no other appeals pending. If the attempts to stop his execution fail, Young will be executed next Tuesday, becoming the eighth person put to death in Texas this year. Six other executions are scheduled through October.