capital punishment

Religious freedom case involving Buddhist death row inmate in Texas just got more intriguing

Religious freedom case involving Buddhist death row inmate in Texas just got more intriguing

At first glance, it might seem like a simple solution.

The state of Texas had a quick response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a Buddhist death row inmate who asked for his spiritual adviser to be in the execution room with him.

In case you missed it earlier, the high court granted a rare stay of execution to Patrick Murphy last week. This came, as we noted, after a different high court ruling in an Arkansas case concerning Muslim inmate Domineque Ray.

The Lone Star fix? Ban all religious chaplains from the death chamber.

OK, problem solved. Or not.

The better news reports I’m seeing — both in Texas papers and the national press — reflect the crucial legal arguments in Patrick Murphy’s case and not just the simplified sound bites.

Among the incomplete coverage, CNN reports the Texas change as if it’s the end of the discussion:

(CNN) The Texas Department of Criminal Justice will bar chaplains, ministers and spiritual advisers from execution chambers in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last week that halted the execution of an inmate who sought to have his Buddhist spiritual adviser in the death chamber.

The move is the latest step in a controversy that pit the religious liberty concerns of death row inmates against security concerns of prisons.

The justices agreed to stay Patrick Henry Murphy's execution, but weeks earlier, had denied a similar request from an inmate in Alabama.

Murphy's initial request had been denied by Texas because officials said for security reasons only prison employees were allowed into the chamber, and the prison only employed Christian and Muslim advisers.

Lawyers for Murphy challenged the policy arguing that it violated Murphy's religious liberty rights. The Supreme Court stepped in and put the execution on hold.

In a statement released Wednesday, the state now says that, "effective Immediately," the protocol now only allows security personnel in the execution chamber.

To its credit, CNN notes:

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Buddhist vs. Muslim: Journalists ask why SCOTUS intervened in one death penalty case, not another

Buddhist vs. Muslim: Journalists ask why SCOTUS intervened in one death penalty case, not another

“Journalists really need to follow up on this crucial religious-liberty case,” our own tmatt wrote in February after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the execution of a Muslim inmate. The big issue in that case was Alabama inmate Domineque Ray’s execution without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side.

But last week, the high court granted a rare stay of execution for a Texas inmate as he was waiting in the death chamber. Justices ruled that the refusal of Texas to allow a Buddhist spiritual adviser to be present violated Patrick Murphy’s freedom of religion.

Wait, what gives?

Why let one inmate die and another live in such similar cases?

Such questions sound like perfect pegs for inquisitive journalists.

Speaking of which …

Robert Barnes, the Washington Post’s veteran Supreme Court reporter, points to the court’s newest justice:

It’s difficult to say with certainty why the Supreme Court on Thursday night stopped the execution of a Buddhist inmate in Texas because he was not allowed a spiritual adviser by his side, when last month it approved the execution of a Muslim inmate in Alabama under almost the exact circumstances.

But the obvious place to start is new Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who seemed to have a change of heart.

Kavanaugh on Thursday was the only justice to spell out his reasoning: Texas could not execute Patrick Murphy without his Buddhist adviser in the room because it allows Christian and Muslim inmates to have religious leaders by their sides.

“In my view, the Constitution prohibits such denominational discrimination,” Kavanaugh wrote.

But Kavanaugh was on the other side last month when Justice Elena Kagan and three other justices declared “profoundly wrong” Alabama’s decision to turn down Muslim Domineque Ray’s request for an imam to be at his execution, making available only a Christian chaplain.

“That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality,” Kagan wrote then.

Keep reading, and the Post notes differences in how the inmates’ attorneys made their arguments:

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Monday Mix: Andrew Brunson, Texas clergy abuse, child porn preachers, death penalty, Christian Post

Monday Mix: Andrew Brunson, Texas clergy abuse, child porn preachers, death penalty, Christian Post

Welcome to another edition of the Monday Mix, where we focus on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. "Well, we were at an all-night prayer meeting during the trial and we got home and we fell asleep. We were up all night. Praise God! I’m so excited! Oh that’s wonderful! Thank you so much for letting us know. We’re so happy.”

How did the parents of a U.S. pastor imprisoned in Turkey for nearly two years react upon learning the news of his release?

Reuters had the faith-filled scoop after a reporter reached Andrew Brunson’s mother at her North Carolina home and notified her of the happy development.

By Saturday, Brunson was kneeling in the Oval Office and praying for President Donald Trump.

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The religion behind why some people of faith support the death penalty — and why others don't

The religion behind why some people of faith support the death penalty — and why others don't

"I wonder if Frank Keating has any comment?"

That was my first thought last week when Pope Francis decreed — as The Associated Press reported — "that the death penalty is 'inadmissible' under all circumstances and the Catholic Church should campaign to abolish it."

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Keating — a lifelong Catholic — served as Oklahoma's governor, I covered the state prison system and later religion for The Oklahoman. On both those beats, the conservative Republican's support for capital punishment came into play.

I always enjoyed interviewing Keating because he wasn't shy about sharing his opinions — even if that meant calling then-Pope John Paul II mistaken in his opposition to the death penalty. In February 1999, Keating famously skipped Mass one Sunday because he said he couldn't sit silently while then-Oklahoma City Archbishop Eusebius Beltran read a letter criticizing the governor's death-penalty stance.

After the news involving Francis last week, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly offered astute, must-read commentary ("Death penalty doctrine: Francis builds on insights of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI?"), followed by a helpful podcast.

Beyond the important questions tmatt raised, I was curious — perhaps because of my past experience with Keating — to see coverage of Catholic governors in states with active death chambers.

For example, Texas executes more inmates than any other state, and yes, it has a Catholic governor.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, is a staunch death penalty supporter and longtime friend of Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson, who prayed at his inauguration. However, Abbott has clashed with his friend and the state's other bishops on issues such as immigration. "We agree to disagree," Olson told me on the immigration issue last year.

I was pleased to see an AP story delving into the quandary that Francis' decree could pose for U.S. politicians.

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This journalist — a Catholic — has witnessed 400-plus executions, but he won't say if he approves

This journalist — a Catholic — has witnessed 400-plus executions, but he won't say if he approves

It's almost incomprehensible: Associated Press journalist Michael Graczyk has served as a media witness for more than 400 executions.

When I worked in AP's Dallas bureau from 2003 to 2005, Graczyk was a Houston-based colleague of mine — and a great guy.

Graczyk, 68, is making headlines this week because of his retirement after 46 years with the news service. 

The Dallas Morning News featured the veteran newsman on today's front page. The Washington Post had a story on him Tuesday. And AP got the scoop on Graczyk's plans. No surprise there, right?

All of the interviews, of course, are fascinating. And all paint a portrait of an accurate, fair-minded journalist: In hundreds of cases, Graczyk has made it a point to interview condemned inmates who were willing. But not only that, he also has given victims' relatives an opportunity to speak, if they so desired.

Here's a journalist who epitomizes the best of his profession.

But right about now, you may be thinking, "OK, but what's the religion angle?" I'm glad you asked.

Each of the stories makes reference to Graczyk's own faith, although the Post fails to mention his Catholic background specifically.

Let's start with AP's religious note:

Graczyk has been asked many times whether he believes the death penalty should be legal. He said he’s a practicing Catholic and respects the church’s teachings against capital punishment, but that he has not made up his own mind.

“I’m not dodging the question,” he said. “I don’t know.”

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Florida conservatives fighting the death penalty? More balance and context would help that narrative

Florida conservatives fighting the death penalty? More balance and context would help that narrative

As a state reporter for The Oklahoman, I witnessed four executions in Oklahoma. Later, while working for The Associated Press, I interviewed a Tennessee mass murderer behind bars and was on the witness list for his scheduled execution. However, it got called off at the last minute. 

Over the last year, I've written freelances pieces on capital punishment for Agence France-Presse and Religion News Service.

Given my experience with the subject, I'm definitely drawn to news reports on the death penalty. A headline that caught my attention today: 

New conservative group wants death penalty repealed

The story is in the Orlando Sentinel and relates to a Florida group that has formed:

A group of Florida conservatives is joining a national organization in the fight to abolish the death penalty, saying it is too “costly, cumbersome and error-prone” and violates conservative values, such as the sanctity of life.
Florida Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said Wednesday other punishments such as life in prison are more fiscally responsible. Studies have shown the death penalty, with its years of appeals, is more costly.
“The death penalty is one of the most expensive boondoggles that has ever been forced upon the taxpayers,” said Republican James Purdy, public defender of the 7th Judicial Court, which includes Volusia, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties.
The group announced its formation outside the Orange County Courthouse, the same spot where Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala, a Democrat, said earlier this year she wouldn’t be seeking the death penalty during her term, laying out many of the same arguments her conservative counterparts did.
Ayala’s decision sparked outrage in conservative circles and caused Republican Gov. Rick Scott to strip her of more than 20 death penalty cases.

OK, how many references to "conservative" or "conservatives" did you count in those first five paragraphs? I believe "five" is the right answer. But still, I have no idea whether we're talking about fiscal conservatives or social conservatives or some combination.

Keep reading, and the story remains rather vague. Specifically, who are these anti-death-penalty conservatives? What exact issues characterize them as, you know, conservatives?

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News story or editorial? Slanted Associated Press report on death penalty stacked with opponents

News story or editorial? Slanted Associated Press report on death penalty stacked with opponents

Apparently, most people in Arkansas support capital punishment.

Amazingly, The Associated Press couldn't find — or didn't want to find — any of them to quote.

AP's own news values and principles maintain that the global news agency abhors "inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortions." Yet — based on a story on the wire today — it's impossible not to question whether bias exists in the coverage of the death penalty in the Natural State.

Here's the top of the AP story:

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — While outrage on social media is growing over Arkansas' unprecedented plan to put seven inmates to death before the end of the month, the protests have been more muted within the conservative Southern state where capital punishment is still favored by a strong majority of residents.
A few dozen people regularly have kept vigil outside Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson's mansion for weeks, holding signs that say "Thou Shalt Not Kill" and "End the Death Penalty." And the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty hopes to draw hundreds of participants to a Good Friday rally at the state Capitol to protest the executions that start Monday — three nights of double executions, followed by a single one. A judge last week halted a planned eighth execution.
"Arkansas is known across the world for the Little Rock Nine and all of that atrocity," said the coalition's execution director, Furonda Brasfield, referring to the 1957 desegregation battle in Little Rock involving nine black students. "And now it's the Little Rock eight in 10, and it paints our state in such a horrible light."
The group is using the hashtag #8in10 to highlight the executions, although one man has received a stay and the seven lethal injections are scheduled to take place over 11 days, the first on April 17 and the last on April 27. Hutchinson set the unprecedented schedule because a key lethal injection drug expires April 30.

I'm certainly familiar with the historical significance of the Little Rock Nine. In 1997, while reporting on desegregation battlegrounds for The Oklahoman, I wrote a front-page Sunday feature on Little Rock Central High School.

But after 60 years, are the Little Rock Nine really what Arkansas is still known for? Might a different source — perhaps one of the "strong majority of residents" who favor the death penalty — offer a different perspective on the state and whether the executions will paint it in a horrible light? The wire service doesn't bother to ask.

In fact, AP quotes six people by name in this report — five of them death penalty opponents.

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Who would Jesus execute? Dylann Roof facing death penalty in rampage at S.C. black church

Who would Jesus execute? Dylann Roof facing death penalty in rampage at S.C. black church

In a story on federal prosecutors seeking the death penalty against Dylann Roof, the New York Times introduces a compelling religion angle way up high.

Jesus even makes an appearance. But, surprise, this faith hook vanishes almost immediately. Strange how things like that happen.

The lede from the Times:

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Rev. Sharon Risher often thinks these days about what she calls her “humanness”: the passing impulse to crave the execution of the white supremacist accused of killing her mother and eight other black churchgoers last year.
“My humanness is being broken, my humanness of wanting this man to be broken beyond punishment,” Ms. Risher said. “You can’t do that if you really say that you believe in the Bible and you believe in Jesus Christ. You can’t just waver.”
But after delays, the Federal District Court here will begin on Monday the long process of individually questioning prospective jurors for the capital trial of Dylann S. Roof, who is charged with 33 federal counts, including hate crimes, in the June 17, 2015, killings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Mr. Roof, whom a judge on Friday declared competent to stand trial, has offered, in exchange for a sentence of life in prison, to plead guilty. The government has refused to make such a plea agreement.
The 17-month path to Mr. Roof’s first death penalty trial — the state of South Carolina is also seeking his execution — has been marked by public demonstrations of forgiveness and reconciliation. But the federal government’s decision to pursue Mr. Roof’s execution is widely questioned, and it is in defiance of the wishes and recommendations of survivors of the attack, many family members of the dead and some Justice Department officials. Even South Carolina’s acrimonious debate about the display of the Confederate battle flag outside the State House was less divisive in this state, polling shows.


Like I said, Jesus makes only a cameo appearance in the Old Gray Lady's report. 

As the story progresses, readers are left to decide for themselves exactly what it is that one can't do if "you really say that you believe in the Bible and you believe in Jesus Christ." Is craving an execution the spiritual problem? Or is Risher opposed to capital punishment itself? Can one forgive Roof yet still see the death penalty as just punishment if he's convicted? 

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Death penalty foes are 'abolitionists,' says the Los Angeles Times -- but does the name fit?

Death penalty foes are 'abolitionists,' says the Los Angeles Times -- but does the name fit?

Are death penalty foes modern abolitionists? Some mainstream media are reaching for that innocence by association, seeking the reflected glory of the 19th century anti-slavery movement. In so doing, however, they ignore its religious nature.

Those media include the Los Angeles Times, which uses that word three times -- once in the headline -- in its follow-up on two ballot items that fought for Californians' attention along with whom they wanted for president.

Capital punishment was the focus of two ballot items in California this week. Proposition 62 would have repealed the death penalty; voters defeated it by 53.9 percent. Proposition 66 would "expedite" the penalty, with measures like referring such cases to lower courts instead of the state Supreme Court. That one was narrowly approved, by 50.9 percent.

The issue resounds beyond the borders of the nation's most populous state, as the Los Angeles Times explains:

California had been one of the most significant states to watch regarding its decision on the death penalty, legal experts said. With nearly 750 inmates awaiting execution, almost double the number in Florida, the state has the second-highest death row population in the country.
The ballot race results showed a large divide over capital punishment in keeping with national trends and followed voter decisions in favor of the death penalty in Oklahoma, which became the first to approve state constitutional protections for it, and in Nebraska, where voters overturned bipartisan legislation repealing it.

For crossfire, we hear from District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento County, in favor of the death penalty. Following her is former star Mike Farrell of the M*A*S*H TV series, opposing capital punishment.  

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