When the state of Texas tried to execute Patrick Murphy on March 28, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in. The high court ruled that the execution was unconstitutional. But it wasn't because of any concerns about due process or the morality of the state taking a life. The issue was religious freedom.
On the day of the execution, Murphy said he was ready to die.
“Because ... when I went into the death house, I was fully prepared for death. Okay. I was mentally, emotionally and spiritually prepared to die.”
Murphy was sent to death row for his role in the Texas Seven escape. In 2000, the group of Texas inmates managed to slip out of a maximum state prison. While on the run they committed numerous robberies, and on Christmas Eve they killed Irving Police Officer Aubry Hawkins as they stole guns from a sporting goods store. Murphy said he did not participate in the killing of Hawkins. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to die.
But when the appointed hour of his execution came and went, he was still alive and sitting in the death house cell. He figured something was happening.
“Well, I knew that we were still waiting on ... the courts because ... they won't actually take us into the death chamber until all your legal actions are finished.”
He sat waiting for two hours until ...
“The assistant warden walked in, came through the door," Murphy said, "and said I had a stay.” He remembered how the warden delivered the news in a straightforward business-like manner.
“My first reaction was that I, I kind of covered my face with my hands ... [and] I said, 'oh, thank you.' ... I did weep a little bit. And then ... after that, my emotional state was pretty much turmoil. You know, I was kind of in shock. Yeah. Because I really wasn't expecting it.”
Few were expecting the Supreme Court to hit pause on the execution. All the more surprising was the reasoning for the stay; religious freedom. Murphy is a Buddhist, and he requested that a Buddhist spiritual advisor accompany him in the death chamber.
It’s a request that Texas routinely accommodates for Christian and Muslim inmates. Traditionally those religious advisors, who are employees of the prison system, stand at the foot of the execution gurney. After the prisoner is strapped in, they place a hand on his leg and silently pray as the lethal injection is delivered.
Murphy said, as a Buddhist, having a spiritual guide present at that final moment is critical.
“We believe that at the time of death, if we can focus our attention, our meditative, that focus on the Buddha," he explained, "it will help us transition to our next life."
The Texas Prison system said because Murphy’s Buddhist advisor isn’t a prison employee, they turned him down. The Supreme Court said that was unconstitutional.
But what was unusual about that is a similar case went before the Supreme Court just the month before and with a different outcome. Dominique Ray asked for a Muslim adviser for his execution in Alabama. The state turned him down, and the Supreme Court did not object. Ray was put to death.
Robert Dunham is the director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
I don't think there's any way that you can look at Dominique Ray's case and Patrick Murphy's case," he said, "and see one execution go forward and one execution not go forward ... and say that there's anything but inconsistent judgements by the court of the issues that were presented in the two cases were legally identical.”
He added that this inconsistency has opened the Supreme Court to harsh criticism about how it handles death row appeals and the court’s overall attitude about the death penalty – including another recent decision that ruled there is no right to a painless execution.
“I think what we're seeing is in particular hostility to method of execution challenges that death row prisoners are bringing," he said, "but that's part of a general hostility to all the litigation that the court is seeing that they had been asking for stays of execution.”
In the Patrick Murphy stay the Supreme Court ruled that for Texas to comply with the Constitution, it needed to allow all religions or none of them.
So the Texas prison system has now banned all religious advisors from the death chamber. Murphy said he found that decision cruel and reactionary, and that Texas could do better than that.
“Texas more or less prides itself as being part of the Bible belt and being very, very religious state,” he said.
Murphy’s stay did not stop Texas from executing others. In mid-April 2019, John William King was put to death for his role in the notorious dragging death of James Byrd Jr.
According to the Texas prison system, King did not request a religious advisor during his execution. And that was troubling to Father Ronald Foshage, a Catholic priest who ministered to King’s father and reached out to the convicted killer.
“He wasn’t a Catholic," Foshage said, referring to the death row inmate. "He believed in the Norse religion. He worshiped the warriors.”
Nevertheless, Foshage said it was troubling that Texas had banned religion from the death chamber. He said the condemned deserve that last chance to ask for forgiveness, which is something King never did.
“I told Bill King you have to ask for forgiveness or else the devil wins,” he recalled.
As for Murphy’s date with death, he is waiting for a new execution warrant. That could be issued in a matter of months or years.
And when it does come, Murphy said he’ll be ready to die again.