Execution Chamber

Texas' execution chamber in Huntsville

Whatever Texans think of the death penalty – and most vigorously support it – we've never questioned the right of condemned prisoners to have a clergy member in the execution chamber.

Never, until last week, when the Texas Department of Criminal Justice started an unnecessary, constitutionally shaky, and mean-spirited policy that bans all clergy from the chamber.

The change in execution policies followed a 7-2 vote by the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the execution of Texas Death Row prisoner Patrick Murphy, 57. Murphy, who became a Buddhist almost a decade ago on Death Row, was scheduled to die by lethal injection at the state penitentiary in Huntsville.

Texas had denied Murphy's request to have a Buddhist clergy member next to him at the moment of execution. Before, TDCJ allowed its own chaplains in the execution chamber. The department, however, employs only Christian and Muslim clergy, raising the constitutional issue of religious discrimination.

To side-step the discrimination issue, the department won't allow clergy of any faith in the execution chamber. The new policy will affect mostly Christians, who make up the vast majority of Texas' nearly 150,000 prisoners.

Courts will determine whether the department's new policy conforms to the constitution, or unlawfully restricts religious freedom. Either way, Texas made a short-sighted decision. It could have easily resolved this case by hiring a Buddhist chaplain, or spiritual advisor, to perform last rites at Murphy's execution.

Doing so would have enabled the state to move forward, without delay, with Murphy's execution. Now, the state will have to wait until the appellate courts hear Murphy's appeal. 

A one-time contract with a Buddhist chaplain probably would cost the state nothing. Ken Goldberg, chaplain of the Buddhist Center of Dallas, told the Herald-Press editorial page he would perform the service without charge. He already attends to dying hospital patients. 

TDCJ could apply the same rigorous accreditation standards and background checks to a contract with Goldberg, or another Buddhist chaplain, that it does for its own clergy. 

Instead of resolving the problem in a simple and humane way, the state decided to, in effect, stand the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment on its head.

Murphy will elicit little public sympathy. After breaking out of a maximum-security prison in 2000, he and six other escapees, known as the “Texas 7,” robbed a sporting goods store. During the robbery, a police officer was shot and killed. Murphy, who acted as a lookout in the getaway vehicle, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

But this isn't about Murphy. It's about the constitutional protection of religious freedom and rights for everyone, even condemned prisoners.

For Christian inmates, the presence of a clergy in their final moment recognizes the state of Texas has rendered its judgment — now, another judgment awaits them. That's a moment the state should relinquish to a higher power, and the U.S. constitution.

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