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Kavanaugh joins SCOTUS majority to delay execution of Texas inmate

Ex-escapee speaks before execution

The Supreme Court on Thursday delayed the execution of Texas inmate Patrick Murphy. Attorneys for the prisoner argued a Buddhist priest was not allowed to be with Murphy in the death chamber as he was being put to death. 

In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that said Texas can't move forward with Murphy's punishment unless the state permits his Buddhist adviser or another Buddhist reverend of the state's choosing to accompany Murphy in the chamber during the execution.

Murphy was one of the "Texas 7" prison escapees convicted for the murder of Irving Police Officer Aubrey Hawkins during a crime spree on Christmas Eve 2000. 

On Wednesday night, Murphy told CBS station KTVTthat his life should be spared because he was on the other side of the building when the fatal shots were fired.  However, he does blame himself for being where he is and says he doesn't want anyone to think he's innocent.  

Murphy's attorneys had said that Texas prison officials' efforts to prevent the inmate's spiritual adviser, a Buddhist priest, from being with him when he is put to death violated Murphy's First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Murphy, 57, became a Buddhist almost a decade ago while incarcerated. 

 Lower courts had rejected the argument. The Supreme Court ruled 7-2, with Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissenting. 

But Kavanaugh wrote Thursday night the Texas prison system allows a Christian or Muslim inmate to have a state-employed Christian or Muslim religious adviser present either in the execution room or in the adjacent viewing room. But inmates of other religious denominations who want their religious adviser to be present can have the adviser present only in the viewing room and not in the execution room itself, he said.

"As this Court has repeatedly held, governmental discrimination against religion_in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech violates the Constitution," he wrote. "The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations."

Kavanaugh said Texas can't move forward with Murphy's punishment unless the state permits his Buddhist adviser or another Buddhist reverend of the state's choosing to accompany Murphy in the chamber during the execution.

"What the State may not do, in my view, is allow Christian or Muslim inmates but not Buddhist inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room," the justice said.

Kavanaugh did not hear any death penalty cases in his 12 years as an appeals court judge joining the Supreme Court.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jeremy Desel the state would review the ruling to determine how to respond.

Desel said Murphy would be returned from the Huntsville Unit prison, where executions are carried out, to the Polunsky Unit, about 45 miles to the east, where death row inmates are imprisoned.

"I knew there was a thin thread of possibility," a smiling Murphy said from a holding cell just a few feet from the death chamber after he was told by the warden he received a reprieve.

Texas officials argued to the court, citing security concerns, that only chaplains who had been extensively vetted by the prison system were allowed within the chamber. While Christian and Muslim chaplains were available, no Buddhist priest was. Prison officials allowed Murphy to visit with his spiritual adviser for about 40 minutes Thursday afternoon. 

The escaped inmates were arrested a month later in Colorado, ending a six-week manhunt. One of them killed himself as officers closed in and the other six were convicted of killing Hawkins and sentenced to death. Murphy would have been the fifth to be executed. The sixth inmate, Randy Halprin, has not been given an execution date.

Murphy would have been the fourth inmate put to death this year in the U.S. and the third executed in Texas, the nation's busiest capital punishment state.

In February, the Supreme Court rejected a request from a Muslim death row inmate in Alabama to have his Islamic spiritual adviser be present in the execution chamber. Dominique Ray, who was executed , also argued his religious rights were violated because Alabama allows a Christian chaplain employed by the prison to be in the execution chamber.

Murphy was convicted under Texas' law of parties, which holds a person criminally responsible for the actions of another if they are engaged in a conspiracy.

Murphy told KTVT he was "basically really to be the getaway driver."

"I'm not challenging the guilt of the crime," said Murphy.  

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