As abolitionists worldwide observed a day of protest against the death penalty on Tuesday, the six members of the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority threw out lower court rulings and allowed the state of Texas to execute Jedidiah Murphy, a deeply faithful Jewish man who suffered from mental illness and wished to become a religious counselor for others in prison.
Last-minute legal wrangling saw the Supreme Court lift two stays placed on the execution by lower courts as Murphy sought exonerating DNA evidence for a violent crime used by prosecutors to secure the death penalty. Murphy was executed by lethal injection in the death chamber of the notorious Huntsville State Prison at 10:15 pm.
He was sentenced to lethal injection for the October 2000 carjacking and fatal shooting of 80-year-old Bertie Lee Cunningham of a Dallas suburb. Murphy, 48, said he was suicidal and suffering from addiction and dissociative mental illness when he “blacked out” and Cunningham was killed, only to come to without any understanding of what he had just done.
However, Murphy had long taken full responsibility for the murder and sought religious repentance as a Jew, according to pen pals and spiritual advisers who held an online vigil on Tuesday. Murphy used his last words to apologize to the victim and her family once again.
“To the family of the victim, I sincerely apologize for all of it,” he said while strapped to a gurney in the death chamber. “I hope this helps, if possible, give you closure.”
Keri Blakinger, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, said she spoke to one of Cunningham’s family members who opposed the execution and was hoping for clemency. Murphy recited a lengthy Jewish prayer before the lethal drugs were administered.
Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, a prison chaplain in Texas, said he recently visited Murphy to pray and administer the powerful Jewish ritual of tying tefillin during prayer. The prison allowed a “full contact” visit, giving Murphy the rare opportunity to embrace the rabbi.
“Before we started, I told him, ‘Jed, one thing that I want to do with you, I want to give you a hug, because we are brothers,’” Goldstein said during the online vigil. “An inmate on death row doesn’t really interact physically with anyone else, and here he is, getting a loving embrace.”
To his friends and supporters, Murphy’s case is a perfect example of everything that is wrong and torturous about state-sanctioned killing. Like many others on death row, Murphy suffered from mental illness, as well as abuse and trauma as a child who ended up in the foster system. Like others in states that still execute prisoners, especially in the South, serious doubts were raised about the evidence used by prosecutors to secure a death sentence.
“Tonight, on World Day Against the Death Penalty, Texas psychologically tortured our Jewish pen pal Jedidiah Murphy to death. This is an abomination of the highest order,” said Cantor Michael Zoosman, a former Jewish prison chaplain and cofounder of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty, in an email. “The death penalty condemns the society that enacts it infinitely more than the individuals it condemns to death. It condemns us all.”
The Supreme Court could have prevented Murphy’s killing, and the three dissenting liberal justices would have taken the chance, according to an order released by the court as Murphy waited for hours to learn his fate. However, as they have in other cases, the six conservative justices — including those nominated by former President Donald Trump for their so-called pro-life credentials — lifted a stay put in place by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and denied a separate petition filed by Murphy’s lawyers.
“It’s 6-3 order, so all of the conservative and far right justices voted to vacate the stay,” anti-death penalty attorney Robert Dunham said during the online vigil. “That tells us something about Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh, who were considered to have more respect for court procedure and access to the courts, but apparently that doesn’t translate into death penalty cases.”
The Fifth Circuit placed a stay on the execution as attorneys sought DNA evidence to exonerate Murphy of a separate violent crime that prosecutors used as evidence during sentencing to convince a jury that he was so dangerous that even a life sentence would not suffice, a legal requirement in Texas. Murphy was never convicted of that crime and denied all involvement; his supporters accuse prosecutors of lying to the jury and presenting faulty evidence.
Murphy’s lawyers fought for a resentencing, but after denying clemency appeals, Texas officials appealed and pushed for the execution. Once again, the Supreme Court sided with one of the few states that still puts people to death on a regular basis.
“All the arguments the state is making [are] procedural, there is no attempt to refute the argument that … his punishment phase was based on false evidence, indeed lies told by a police officer,” said Abraham Borowitz, director of Death Penalty Action, a group that works to stop executions and abolish the death penalty.
Murphy’s attorneys had also argued that the drugs used to kill him may have been damaged during a fire at the prison, so the lethal injection would amount to cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Constitution. This appeal was also denied by the Supreme Court.
Zoosman pointed to a new report from the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty that argues the death penalty in any country is incompatible with international bans on torture. The system is set up to torture people, Zoosman said, with Murphy waiting for hours with the hope he might survive as people he has never met decided his fate.
“Our movement is standing against killing, and [Jedidiah Murphy was] consistent with that messaging across the board, and he always has been,” Zoosman said. “It’s complete truth to say that has been from day one, he was fully repentant and sincere and desiring to help the world be a better place.”
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