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Supreme Court stays execution in Texas over inmate’s request for pastor’s touch

Death row inmate John Henry Ramirez
Death row inmate John Henry Ramirez won a temporary stay of execution from the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
(Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

A Texas death row inmate won a reprieve from execution from the U.S. Supreme Court over his claim that the state was violating his religious freedom by not letting his pastor lay hands on him at the time of his lethal injection.

The high court Wednesday evening blocked John Henry Ramirez’s execution about three hours after he could have been executed. Ramirez was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing 46-year-old Pablo Castro, a Corpus Christi convenience store clerk, during a 2004 robbery that yielded $1.25.

Ramirez was in a small holding cell a few feet from the Texas death chamber at the Huntsville Unit prison when he was told of the reprieve by Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark.

“He was quiet when I let him know,” Clark said. “He shook his head and said: ‘Thank you very much. God bless you.’”

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In its brief order, the Supreme Court directed its clerk to establish a briefing schedule so that Ramirez’s case could be argued in October or November.

Prosecutors say Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times during a series of robberies in which Ramirez and two women sought money following a three-day drug binge. Ramirez fled to Mexico but was arrested 3½ years later.

Lisa Montgomery’s execution comes as another court halted two other executions set for later this week because the inmates tested positive for COVID-19.

Seth Kretzer, Ramirez’s lawyer, had argued that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was violating his client’s 1st Amendment rights to practice his religion by denying his request for his pastor to touch him and say prayers when he was executed. Kretzer called the ban on vocal prayer a spiritual “gag order.”

“It is hostile toward religion, denying religious exercise at the precise moment it is most needed: when someone is transitioning from this life to the next,” Kretzer said in court documents.

Lower appeals courts had rejected Ramirez’s argument.

The request by Ramirez, 37, is the latest clash between death row inmates and prison officials in Texas and other states over the presence of spiritual advisors in the death chamber.

Gov. Newsom’s deliberations on choosing a new attorney general underscore the sea change when it comes to capital punishment

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In recent years, the Supreme Court has granted several stays of execution in Texas and Alabama over the presence of clergy or spiritual advisors in the death chamber. The only execution stays the Supreme Court has granted in recent years have been related to issues of religious practice or discrimination.

In April, the Texas prison system reversed a two-year ban on allowing spiritual advisors in the death chamber. The ban came after the Supreme Court in 2019 halted the execution of another Texas inmate who had argued that his religious freedom was being violated because his Buddhist spiritual advisor wasn’t allowed to accompany him. That inmate, Patrick Murphy, remains on death row.

Texas previously allowed state-employed clergy to accompany inmates into the chamber, but its prison staff included only Christian and Muslim clerics. The new policy allows an inmate’s approved spiritual advisor to be in the chamber, but the two cannot have any contact, and vocal prayers during the execution are not allowed.

Texas prison officials say that direct contact poses a security risk and that prayers said aloud could be disruptive to what should be an orderly execution process. No one usually formally speaks during an execution except for some prison officials and a doctor who announces the time of death. An inmate’s final statement can also be read out.

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Dana Moore, Ramirez’s spiritual advisor over the last four years, said the request to let him touch Ramirez was about letting Ramirez practice his Christian faith and treating him “with a certain amount of dignity.”

Moore and Kretzer say that the laying on of hands is a symbolic act in which religious leaders put their hands on someone in order to offer comfort during prayer or confer a spiritual blessing at the moment of someone’s death.

But Mark Skurka, the lead prosecutor at Ramirez’s 2008 trial, said that while he believes a death row inmate should have a spiritual advisor at the time of execution, there should be limitations based on security concerns.

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“Pablo Castro didn’t get to have somebody praying over him as this guy stabbed him 29 times. Pablo Castro didn’t get afforded such niceties and things like to have a clergyman present,” said Skurka, now retired after later serving as Nueces County district attorney.

The Trump administration early Saturday carried out its 13th federal execution since July, just before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Castro, who had nine children, had worked at the convenience store for more than a decade when he was killed.

“He was a good guy. He would help people out in the neighborhood. Everybody liked him,” Skurka said.

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The two women who took part in the robberies with Ramirez and were convicted on lesser charges remain in prison.

Six more executions are scheduled for later this year in Texas.


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