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Texas death row inmate seeks stay citing coronavirus pandemic

Texas death row inmate seeks stay citing coronavirus pandemic
Ruben Gutierrez was convicted of murder for the 1998 slaying of trailer park owner Escolastica Harrison. File Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Corrections

June 2 (UPI) -- The next death row inmate scheduled to be executed in the United States asked a Texas court for a stay Tuesday, citing disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Attorneys for Ruben Gutierrez filed a motion with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals saying they will be unable to conduct investigations required in the weeks leading up to his execution.

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Gutierrez, 42, is scheduled to be executed June 16 for the 1998 murder of trailer park owner Escolastica Harrison.

"It would be irresponsible and against the public's interest to conduct the necessary investigation during this pandemic," the motion reads. "Mr. Gutierrez's team members cannot conduct the work necessary to fulfill their obligation to him without putting themselves and others at risk."

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The defense team pointed out that they've been under stay-at-home orders in Philadelphia since March 23.

"The imperative of social distancing has thus thwarted Mr. Gutierrez's ability to conduct the in-person investigation necessary to support his litigation and his seeking of clemency."

Gutierrez currently has another request for DNA testing pending in federal court. In February, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said he didn't meet the requirements for obtaining a post-conviction DNA test.

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Gutierrez sought the testing of nail scrapings and loose hairs taken from the victim, a shirt belonging to a family member of Harrison and other clothing items. He says the testing would prove his innocence.

Authorities said Gutierrez knew Harrison through her nephew and worked together with accomplices Pedro Garcia and Rene Garcia to rob her of about $600,000 in cash she had stashed in her home. An autopsy showed Harrison had been beaten and stabbed 13 times with two different screwdrivers.

Gutierrez said he helped organized the robbery, but didn't take part in the murder and DNA testing would absolve him.

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"For more than two decades on Texas' death row in solitary confinement, Mr. Gutierrez has always maintained that he did not commit this crime. There is no physical or forensic evidence connecting Mr. Gutierrez to the crime," Gutierrez's attorney, Shawn Nolan, said.

"His wrongful conviction was based solely upon two weak elements: a false confession elicited when police threatened to take Mr. Gutierrez's children away and threatened his wife, and an unreliable witness. The witness claimed to have identified Mr. Gutierrez as being in the area of the crime at the time it was committed, but the reliability of this identification has been seriously questioned by expert opinions."

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The request for a stay comes two weeks after Missouri carried out the nation's first execution since the start of the pandemic. Walter Barton received the lethal injection May 19 for the 1991 murder of an 81-year-old trailer park operator Gladys Kuehler.

Texas has delayed or rescheduled six executions, while Tennessee delayed one, all due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Death penalty experts warn the pandemic could disrupt U.S. executions for months to come.

Robert Dunham, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, told UPI in March there's a lot of legal work that happens once a death row inmate is put on the calendar for execution. In some cases, witnesses don't come forward to provide evidence or testimony until there's a date.

"It would be irresponsible and potentially deadly for the defense teams to be sending out investigators," he said.

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