The US Supreme Court on Tuesday granted a last-minute reprieve to a Texas prisoner facing execution after the Catholic Church campaigned for him to be allowed to have priest present.
The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops argued that Ruben Gutierrez's constitutional rights and religious liberty were violated by a year-old state statue which bans religious officials from the death chamber.
The court granted the stay based on Gutierrez's challenge to Texas's "change of the longstanding practice... of allowing prisoners to have spiritual advisors in the chamber during executions," Shawn Nolan, one of his attorneys, said.
"As a devout Catholic, Mr. Gutierrez’s faith requires the assistance of clergy to help him pass from life into afterlife."
Gutierrez was due to be executed Tuesday evening until the Supreme Court said it should be determined if having a priest present raised "serious security problems."
On death row for 20 years, Gutierrez, 43, was convicted of the murder in 1998 of a 85-year-old woman, trailer-park owner Escolastica Harrison, in a robbery.
Gutierrez and two others were accused of stabbing her to death to steal $56,000 that she had stored away in her home.
One pleaded guilty and the second escaped. The third, Gutierrez, was convicted at trial and sentenced to death, but has all along insisted on his innocence.
His lawyers had battled for a delay, asking Texas Governor Greg Abbott to halt the execution so they could pursue a DNA examination they say could prove his innocence.
"In a case with no physical or forensic evidence against him, to execute Mr. Gutierrez without conducting DNA testing would be the ultimate violation of his civil rights," Nolan said in a statement.
Gutierrez's defenders also argue that the high number of COVID-19 cases at his prison in Huntsville, Texas presents a risk for his family and others that would attend the execution.
Texas prisons have counted 7,445 cases of coronavirus, among both inmates and guards, according to the state prison bureau.