Jewish death row inmate in Texas will almost certainly be executed next week

Courts have refused last-ditch appeal from Jedidiah Murphy, whose lawyers say is the victim of a flawed trial


The Texas courts have refused to hear a last-ditch appeal from Jewish death row inmate Jedidiah Murphy, who is now set to be executed at the state’s Hunstville prison at 6pm local time next Tuesday.

Lawyers acting for Murphy, 48, now plan to file further petitions in the US federal courts arguing that his death sentence rests on false testimony, but their prospects of halting the execution while they are considered are said to be slim.

The Texas governor, Greg Abbott, has the power to grant him clemency if this is recommended by the state parole board. However, this has only happened three times since Texas resumed executions in 1982 after a long hiatus. In the same period, it has put 577 prisoners to death.

In an email sent from his cell this week, Murphy appeared to be resigned. He thanked the JC for its support, writing that ultimately, his fate “is for Hashem to decide”.

Murphy is one of at least twelve halachically Jewish prisoners on death row in America, and held a bar mitzvah ceremony in prison in 2016. Having endured an abusive, traumatic childhood, much of it spent in care, Murphy was convicted in 2001 of murdering Bertie Lee Cunningham, 79, after hijacking her car.

At the time he committed the crime – for which his spiritual adviser Rabbi Dovid Goldstein of the West Houston Chabad-Lubavitch says he has deeply repented – he was suffering from severe mental illness. 

As the JC reported last month, Murphy’s final appeals to the Texas state courts focused on two main issues. 

First was the fact that during the punishment phase of his trial, when the jury voted to award a death sentence, the prosecution presented “false testimony” that linked him to another carjacking that took place three years before Cunningham was shot. 

Murphy had never been investigated or charged with this crime, but prosecutors claimed he had committed it. They said this meant he exhibited a pattern of violent behaviour and would therefore be a “continuing threat to society” if sentenced to life imprisonment, rather than death. 

Murphy has an alibi for this crime, and the jury was not told that police had tried and failed to match his fingerprints to good quality prints left on the carjacked vehicle by its perpetrator. However, the senior detective who investigated the offence testified that although police collected “some fingerprint evidence”, there was “nothing that was of quality enough to be comparable.”

Murphy’s lawyer Catherine Bernhard described this in court documents as “blatantly false testimony”.

His appeal also included the claim that to try to kill him using the drug pentobarbital would amount to “cruel and unusual” punishment, since the Texan prison system’s supply is years past its use by date, and was exposed to temperatures of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (982 Celsius) during a fire that raged through the building in which it was stored in August. Scientists say this will have caused it to degrade, so it may cause severe pain without even killing him.  

The Texas courts decided to reject Murphy’s appeals without hearing evidence or oral argument. They have not given reasons. They will now be put before the US federal courts.

In the email sent from his cell, Murphy wrote: “I really appreciate all the help you gave in talking about things that took place that many people never knew. Whether or not it changes anything is Hashem to decide.”

But his tone is not optimistic: “At this stage, we're all in,” Murphy wrote.

“We've done all that we can and I am at peace where we are. All I wanted was for people to see some of the truth that was covered up. As humans we judge what we don't fully understand and I am guilty of that myself.

“But life is complex and often we don't know the story that led to the story. Mine is that I made a tragic mistake [and] took responsibility for it.”

Murphy also said that the Judaism he embraced on death row helped to transform his life: “I worked on my life until the things that were broken, became strong again. 

“My wife, love itself and believing change could happen is what led to it. That is what I want to leave behind me.

“A story about truth, about repentance and about restoration through the love of Hashem. It’s real, it happened and it’s his will be done.”

He signed off his email to the JC: “Thanks again for all you did and do brother. Moadim L'simcha [this is a traditional Hebrew greeting used during Succot], Shalom. Jedidiah”

Michael Zooosman, a former prison chaplain and co-founder of campaign group L’Chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty, said he too had been in touch this week with Murphy, and had discussed his case with Sister Helen Prejean, the prominent campaigner against capital punishment and author of the book Dead Man Walking.

He said: “We spoke of Jews in the movement against the death penalty, and about the influence in it of the [Holocaust survivor and author] Elie Wiesel and [the late Supreme Court Justice] Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For Sr Helen as for me, they remain an inspiration.”

Messages of support for Murphy have been “flooding in from across the Jewish world”, Zoosman told the JC.

But he added: “We are hoping for the best. But we have to be prepared for the worst.”

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