The Supreme Court stayed the execution of a Texas inmate on Tuesday, about an hour before it was to occur, in response to his lawyers’ argument that his religious liberty was violated when he was denied a request to have a Christian chaplain present during his execution.
The inmate, Ruben Gutierrez, who was scheduled to die by injection, had been convicted of fatally stabbing a woman in 1998.
The request to have a Christian chaplain in the execution room was routine in Texas executions until last year, when the Supreme Court issued an order suggesting that inmates of all religions should be allowed spiritual advisers or none should be allowed at all. In response, Texas banned all religious advisers.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered a lower court to determine whether the presence of a spiritual adviser in the execution chamber poses a security risk. The Supreme Court said its stay would remain in place until it decided whether to hear the case after lower courts rule and, if it did, until it issued a decision.
“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 Supreme Court said.
The execution of Mr. Gutierrez would have been the first in Texas since Feb. 6, when executions stopped because of risks to prison officers from the coronavirus.
Shawn Nolan, one of Mr. Gutierrez’s lawyers, said Mr. Gutierrez’s faith required the assistance of clergy to help him pass from life into afterlife.
“He’s been Catholic his whole life and maintains his Christian faith,” Mr. Nolan said. “At that last moment of life, to have a connection with your minister is such an important thing.”
Mr. Nolan asked the Supreme Court to stay the execution after an appeals court last week overturned a stay.
Luis V. Saenz, the Cameron County district attorney, said that his office would “double down” to fight the challenge. “Personally, I’m terribly disappointed for the victim’s lone surviving 93-year-old sister who has once again been denied justice,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. “As a prosecutor, this changes nothing. It only delays his ultimate fate.”
The Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday morning.
The halting of Mr. Gutierrez’s execution also buys the defense more time. Mr. Nolan said that Mr. Gutierrez, 43, has for years sought testing of DNA evidence to prove he did not commit the crime for which he was sentenced to death.
The authorities said that Mr. Gutierrez tried to steal about $600,000 in cash from Escolastica Harrison, 85, after befriending her. They say Mr. Gutierrez, who was 21 at the time, and two accomplices went into the woman’s home and left with the money. Mr. Gutierrez, in his third statement to the police, said his accomplice beat, kicked and stabbed the victim, while Mr. Gutierrez took her money.
In the years since, Mr. Gutierrez has repeatedly challenged his conviction and has twice sought post-conviction DNA testing in state court. Mr. Nolan said that Mr. Gutierrez’s statements to the police, in 1998, became increasingly incriminating after police officers threatened to arrest his wife as an accomplice and to take his children. He said the public interest would be best served by allowing DNA testing to prevent a wrongful execution.
In the last year or so, the Supreme Court has grappled with the issue of whether those condemned to death should be allowed to have a spiritual adviser present.
In March 2019, the Supreme Court issued an order that said officials could not deny Patrick H. Murphy, a Buddhist inmate in Texas, from having a spiritual adviser in the execution chamber when Christian advisers were allowed one. No new execution date has been set for Mr. Murphy.
“The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations,” wrote Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in a concurring opinion last year. He wrote that the state’s policy of allowing only Christian and Muslim chaplains to attend executions amounted to unconstitutional religious discrimination.
Justice Kavanaugh wrote that Texas could exclude advisers of all denominations from the execution chamber but may not allow only some to be present.
A month earlier, in a separate case, the Supreme Court allowed the execution of a Muslim inmate in Alabama whose request that his imam be present had been denied.
The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, a federation of Roman Catholic dioceses and ordinariates in Texas, filed a brief on Mr. Gutierrez’s behalf.
Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the group, said on Wednesday that a person’s final moments should offer a chance for pardon and redemption.
“We think it’s cruel and unusual punishment that you would deny someone, in their final moments, the protection of the First Amendment,” she said. “It costs the state nothing and produces no security risk to allow a chaplain to be present and to place his hand on the ankle of the condemned as he departs this world and enters into eternal life.”
Adam Liptak contributed reporting.