A federal judge in Houston on Tuesday issued a stay of execution in the case of death row inmate Ruben Gutierrez, who was convicted in 1999 by a Cameron County jury for the murder of 85-year-old Escolastica Harrison.
Gutierrez was accused of killing Harrison with two accomplices when a plan to steal $600,000 in cash kept by Harrison in her mobile home park went wrong. His latest execution date was set for June 16. He has maintained his innocence.
U.S. Senior District Judge Hilda Tagle granted a stay on Gutierrez’s execution pending the outcome of his federal habeas petition. Tagle last week denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case for post-conviction DNA testing on seven grounds, granting three.
In a statement on Tuesday, Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz reiterated his commitment to seeking justice for Harrison’s family. “Personally, I’m extremely disappointed for the Harrison family who once again have been re-victimized by the cowardly actions of a cold blooded murderer and his manipulation of the criminal justice system,” he wrote.
Attorneys for Gutierrez filed a flurry of last-minute motions to halt his execution beginning in late May. Judge Benjamin Euresti, Jr. of the 107th state District Court of Cameron County denied a motion to recall an amended version of an order setting an execution date and warrant for lack of jurisdiction on May 29.
Issues raised in a writ of mandamus and a motion for a stay of execution filed on Gutierrez’s behalf at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeal included concern over the safety of the inmates and staff at the Huntsville Unit due to a growing number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 inside the facility and in the surrounding community.
Gutierrez’s attorneys in addition filed a clemency petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on May 26. In addition to DNA testing, his federal habeas petition seeks to resolve an issue between Gutierrez and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which is refusing to accommodate his request to have a Christian chaplain present in the execution chamber.
Gutierrez has long sought to have evidence collected at the crime scene released from the Brownsville Police Department for DNA testing, arguing it could exonerate him. Gutierrez, now 42, was placed at the mobile home park on the day of the murder by one eyewitness.
His attorney Shawn Nolan wrote of Tagle’s stay, “It is amazing that the state of Texas has stated that it will test all prison inmates for the COVID-19 virus, yet refuses to agree to simply test the available evidence for DNA to prove whether or not Mr. Gutierrez was responsible for this crime. In a case with no physical or forensic evidence against him, to execute Mr. Gutierrez without conducting DNA testing would be the ultimate violation of his civil rights.”