Before April 2019, Texas had allowed state-employed chaplains in the execution chamber. But the state had only Christian and Muslim chaplains on staff, which meant that a Buddhist death row inmate, Patrick Murphy, would have been denied the presence of a spiritual adviser at the time of death. Mr. Murphy’s lawyers objected, and they pressed their case to the Supreme Court, which halted the execution pending one of two options: Either all inmates could have a spiritual adviser of their religious persuasion with them in the execution chamber, or none could. Texas chose the latter.
In a brief submitted this September in Mr. Gutierrez’s case, Texas authorities argued that there are too many faiths among Texas’ death row inmates for the state to employ a chaplain representing each one, and bringing nonemployees into the chamber would be too great a security risk to tolerate.
The state refused to budge, even after the Texas Catholic bishops presented an amicus curiae brief in support of Mr. Gutierrez’s desire for a pastor’s presence at his death.
“The perspective of the bishops is — it’s bad enough that you’re using the death penalty, which we are opposed to, but it’s unconscionable that, if you are going to execute somebody, you would not allow them to have the religious, moral freedom to be accompanied by somebody who will be able to assist them in those ultimate questions and ultimate realities,” Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, explained during a telephone interview.
Bishop Flores acknowledged, as did Mr. Nolan, that those who support Mr. Gutierrez’s cause are somewhat at a loss: Mr. Gutierrez’s execution will proceed whether the Supreme Court declines to hear his case, or should the court hear it and either require Texas to permit clergy in the death chamber or allow the state to bar clergy altogether.
“We are opposed to the death penalty, but that doesn’t mean that once we’re dealing with a system that seems to be dead set on it, that we cease being an advocate for that person,” Bishop Flores said. Where clemency isn’t available, the church will still seek a little comfort for the damned.
The presence of a priest, Bishop Flores told me, can serve to assure “this person that the judgment of God does not necessarily coincide with the judgment of the court.”