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U.S. Supreme Court halts Texas execution of Ruben Gutierrez during legal fight over religious advisers' access to death chamber

Gutierrez has long fought for DNA testing he says could prove his innocence in a 1998 Brownsville murder and home robbery. But the high court's ruling centered on Texas prison officials' recent decision to keep religious advisers out of the execution room.

Interior of execution chamber.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

The U.S. Supreme Court halted the Texas execution of Ruben Gutierrez on Tuesday, just over an hour before he was scheduled to die.

Gutierrez was convicted in 1999 of killing of an elderly woman during a Brownsville home robbery, and has spent the last decade fighting for DNA testing he claims could prove his innocence. But the high court stopped his execution because of a new appeal pushing for a religious adviser to be allowed in the death chamber.

Last week, a federal district judge stayed, or stopped, Gutierrez's execution while she reviewed his latest appeal. In it, Gutierrez said the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's new policy banning religious advisers in the execution room with inmates violated his religious freedom. Last year, TDCJ changed its policy that allowed prison chaplains in the chamber after the Supreme Court stopped another execution after a claim of religious discrimination. That inmate was Buddhist and wanted an adviser of his faith, but TDCJ only has Christian and Muslim clerics on staff and said outside advisers could not enter the room for security reasons.

On Friday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals tossed the district judge's stay, saying Gutierrez was unlikely to succeed on the appeal. But the nation's high court again stopped the execution just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, and told the district judge to swiftly order a ruling in the appeal.

"The District Court should 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 adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution," the Tuesday order said.

The order said the stay would be lifted if the federal judge rejects Gutierrez's appeal, but if that does not occur Tuesday, the execution would need to be reset at least 90 days in the future. One of Gutierrez's lawyers told The Texas Tribune he did not expect a ruling from the district court Tuesday night.

Death row inmate Ruben Gutierrez.

Gutierrez's latest appeals to the high court and Gov. Greg Abbott also asked for a halt to his execution because the coronavirus continues spreading in the state. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals began delaying executions because of the coronavirus in March — citing “the current health crisis and the enormous resources needed to address that emergency.” Gutierrez filed a similar motion to stay his execution earlier this month, but his lawyers told The Texas Tribune that the court denied it without any explanation.

At the Huntsville Unit, where inmates are executed, there were dozens of prisoners and multiple employees confirmed to have active cases of the coronavirus as of Saturday, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice reports. The city of Huntsville, with seven prisons, has also had recent infection surges. Gutierrez’s attorneys argued in their filing that questions about staffing availability during the health crisis, close contact between employees and execution witnesses, the requirement that people to travel to an infected town and the lawyers' limited ability to conduct interviews for final appeals should have led the court to delay the execution.

"No execution has occurred in Texas since the pandemic emerged, and under prevailing conditions it would be dangerous to change that now," attorneys Shawn Nolan and Richard Rogers wrote in a letter to Abbott on Monday.

Gutierrez, 43, was sentenced to death for the 1998 stabbing and beating death of 85-year-old Escolastica Cuellar Harrison during a home robbery. Harrison lived in the mobile home park she owned and had about $600,000 in her house at the time of her death, according to court records.

Gutierrez, who knew Harrison through her nephew, was accused of the fatal robbery along with two other men, Rene Garcia and Pedro Gracia, according to court filings. Garcia, who pleaded guilty, is serving a life sentence; Gracia was released from jail before his trial on a $75,000 bond and has been wanted for more than 20 years.

After his arrest, Gutierrez told police he had been waiting in a park while the other two men robbed Harrison, but he didn’t know they were going to kill her. Days later, he said he had gone into the house with Garcia but that Garcia killed Harrison alone. But he quickly recanted that statement and said he “assented to it only after detectives threatened to arrest his wife and take away his children,” according to a court filing.

At the time of Harrison’s death, police preserved fingernail scrapings, a hair in her hand and blood stains, but DNA was never tested. Gutierrez has long fought to test the evidence, claiming it can prove he was not Harrison’s killer. But Cameron County prosecutors have argued that because there may have been multiple killers, tested evidence that didn't match him still wouldn’t mark him as innocent. The appeals court agreed Friday, noting that in Texas, a defendant can be sentenced to death for acting as an accomplice in a capital murder.

“The problem for Gutierrez is that he was convicted without jurors needing to decide whether he was the actual murderer or an accomplice,” the panel of judges on the circuit court wrote in their Friday ruling. “A search for DNA on the victim’s clothing and elsewhere would not reasonably lead to evidence that would exclude Gutierrez as an accomplice.”

Aside from DNA testing, Gutierrez's appeal about religious advisers in Texas' execution chamber marks the second time the topic has now been raised with the Supreme Court. The department’s policy used to allow TDCJ chaplains in the execution chamber, where the religious adviser would often pray and rest a hand on the inmate’s leg. But the policy was changed after a 2019 execution for a Buddhist inmate was stayed by the high court because TDCJ only had Christian and Muslim advisers on staff.

Rather than allowing spiritual advisers into the chamber who were not on staff, TDCJ officials, citing security concerns, opted to take the advice of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and change their policy to not allow chaplains of any religion into the execution chamber. Gutierrez is fighting for a Christian chaplain, and the case has now been sent back to the federal district court.

“Texas decided to avoid the discrimination issue by taking away Mr. Gutierrez’s religious freedoms,” attorney Matthew Lawry wrote in Monday’s brief to the nation's high court.

The state has countered that Gutierrez could still consult with a chaplain or perform last rites in the moments before his execution, when he would have access to a spiritual adviser.

Gutierrez's execution was set to be the third this year in Texas, a relatively low number for the state tied to the long gap since the pandemic began. His lawyers have written a letter to Abbott asking for a 30-day stay in part because coronavirus cases continues to rise in Texas. His case has also caught the attention of Kim Kardashian West, a famous TV personality turned prison reform advocate. On Sunday, she tweeted at the governor, calling for a full review before Gutierrez is executed.

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