“Seduce His Emotions”: Chaplains, Religious Advisors, and Aesthetics in Texas Executions

Fletcher, Megan
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Before 2019, Texas allowed chaplains to be present in its execution chamber, to speak aloud, and to physically touch prisoners to comfort them during their executions. That changed when Patrick Murphy, a Buddhist, requested his Buddhist advisor accompany him, as chaplains in Texas prisons are exclusively Christian or Muslim. Texas refused Murphy’s request. Murphy sued. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor and stayed his execution at the last minute. In response to the opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which required Texas to include chaplains and advisors from all religious traditions if access was allowed at all, Texas banned them from the chamber. The new policy did not last long, as two later cases involving Christian prisoners forced Texas to loosen this rule over the following years. I argue that these changes in policy are affected by the state’s efforts to tightly control execution practices. In Texas, execution by lethal injection creates a particular aesthetic that legitimizes ritualized state violence. Officials strive to maintain this aesthetic, even if it demands curtailing access to religious counsel and care for those condemned to die. Because outside religious advisors typically know the prisoner, the state of Texas believes they pose a higher risk of error than a chaplain, who does not know the prisoner. An outside religious advisor may act out emotionally, intentionally or not, and disturb the execution. Because both the courts and the public expect a sanitized, bloodless execution, any error in the process could mean Texas loses its authority to execute people. Therefore, the state has dragged its heels in writing a cohesive policy for outside religious advisors to keep a tight hold on its authority to execute.