Texas set to resume executions after delay due to pandemic

HOUSTON (AP) - A Texas inmate convicted of fatal knife stabbing against an 85-year-old woman more than two decades ago should die by injection Tuesday as the country's busiest death penalty state was ready to execute a four-month delay to resume the coronavirus pandemic.
Prosecutors said 43-year-old Ruben Gutierrez had attempted to steal more than $ 600,000 that Escolastica Harrison had hidden in her home in Brownsville, on the southern tip of Texas, when he killed her in 1998. Gutierrez's lawyers have asked the US Supreme Court to stop his execution after an appeals court last week suspended his stay.
If Gutierrez's execution is carried out, he would be the first inmate in Texas to receive a lethal injection since February 6, and the second U.S. inmate to be killed since the country reopened after the pandemic was largely intact the country subsequently closed. The country began to open again, Missouri resumed executions in the United States on May 19.
In Texas, the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continues to grow as government officials say hot spots such as prisons and meat packaging companies are responsible for the increasing number. However, state prison officials said security measures they have taken, including measuring the temperatures of participants and providing personal protective equipment, will drive executions.
"Yes, the agency can safely carry out the process for the participants and witnesses of the execution," said prison system spokesman Robert C. Hurst.
Six executions scheduled in Texas earlier this year have been postponed due to an outbreak by an appeals court or judges. A seventh was postponed for alleged intellectual disability. Gutierrez's lawyers had also requested a corona virus delay, but were rejected on Friday by the Texas Court of Appeals.
Also on Friday, the U.S. 5th Court of Appeals suspended a stay in the case associated with Gutierrez's request for DNA testing. He said he could point out the real killer and his claims that his religious rights were violated because the prison system did not allow a chaplain to accompany him to the death chamber.
Gutierrez lawyers asked the US Supreme Court on Monday to stop his execution for violating religious rights. The Texas prison system banned clergymen from the death chamber last year after a Supreme Court ruling stopped the execution of another inmate, Patrick Murphy, who requested that a Buddhist counselor be allowed to enter the chamber. A trial before the federal court in Houston regarding Murphy's case is still pending.
"Through hundreds of previous executions, the state of Texas has recognized that people who are executed have the right to be religious counselors at the end of their lives," said Shawn Nolan, one of Mr. Gutierrez's lawyers. "Mr. Gutierrez has the same right."
The Texas Catholic Bishops' Conference has submitted a brief to the Supreme Court in support of Gutierrez.
"Denying access to spiritual and religious guidance and guidance to a prisoner facing impending execution is cruel and inhumane," said Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville.
Gutierrez has long claimed he didn't kill Harrison. His lawyers say there is no physical or forensic evidence to link him to the murder. Two other people were also charged.
According to the authorities, Gutierrez became friends with Harrison, a park manager for mobile homes and retired teachers, so that he could rob them. Prosecutors said Harrison was suspicious of banks and hid their money under a mezzanine in her bedroom closet.
Cameron District Attorney Luis Saenz has described Gutierrez's appeals as "delay tactics." Prosecutors said the request for DNA testing was a “trick” and Gutierrez was convicted of various types of evidence, including a confession.
"It is time for justice to serve Mrs. Harrison," said Saenz.
Gutierrez would be the third inmate killed in Texas this year and the seventh in the United States.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70
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