Attorneys for death row inmate Ruben Gutierrez, sentenced to death for the murder of 85-year-old Escolastica Harrison in 1999, have filed a series of last-minute motions intended to stay Gutierrez’s pending execution by lethal injection on June 16.
Issues raised in a writ of mandamus and a motion for a stay of execution filed on Gutierrez’s behalf include the safety of the inmates and staff at the Huntsville Unit due to a growing number of COVID-19 cases inside the facility.
Gutierrez was convicted of fatally stabbing Harrison more than 20 years ago as part of an attempt to steal more than $600,000 that she had hidden in her house.
Gutierrez’s attorneys last week filed a motion asking the 107th state District Court to recall an amended version of an order setting an execution date and warrant it issued in February due to lack of jurisdiction. The court denied that motion without explanation, according to attorneys.
Counsel for Gutierrez then moved to file a motion at the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) arguing prosecutors had no jurisdiction to set the date due to the ongoing appeal.
Gutierrez has long claimed that DNA testing could prove his innocence, though prosecutors argued testing the evidence would not necessarily exonerate Gutierrez due to the possibility of multiple killers.
Gutierrez’s attorney Shawn Nolan said of the case, “There is no physical or forensic evidence connecting Mr. Gutierrez to the crime. 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.”
Prosecutors during trial called attention to the fact that Gutierrez changed his story multiple times. The Cameron County District Attorney’s office said on Wednesday it stands by the jury’s decision to convict based upon the evidence presented at trial, as well as the trial court’s judgment sentencing Gutierrez to death.
“ We’re still hoping for the best with these proceedings they’ve initiated,” said District Attorney Luis V. Saenz on Wednesday. “There’s no doubt in our minds that he is guilty and there’s no doubt in my mind that the jury got it right back in 1999.”
In another last-minute legal maneuver, Gutierrez’s lawyers filed a clemency petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on May 26 citing concern for the health and safety of the execution team and prison population during a pandemic.
The petition for a stay of execution filed on Tuesday cited similar concerns. Attorneys noted that the Huntsville Unit is a coronavirus hotspot. As of June 1, there were 137 active cases among inmates and 41 recovered cases, according to the petition. Walker County officials told reporters this week the county had 1,037 recent cases with a daily growth rate of 19%.
“ The state’s position is going to be that the chamber is separate, and so there’s no danger, but that’s not true. We don’t know if they’re positive. Having witnesses in that closed space — including lawyers, special advisors, and reporters — is completely unsafe,” said Nolan.
He noted that CCA has halted various executions in light of the pandemic. In Gutierrez’s case, the execution has not been stopped because the District Attorney’s Office has opposed doing so.
Gutierrez’s federal proceedings are ongoing. U.S. Senior District Judge Hilda Tagle on Tuesday denied the state’s motion to dismiss his case for post-conviction DNA testing on seven grounds, while granting three.