HUNTSVILLE, Texas – A Texas death row inmate was pardoned Wednesday night after his execution for killing a convenience store employee during a 2004 robbery that raised $1.25 after declaring the state was in danger of being killed. violated his religious freedom by not letting the pastor lay hands on him at the time of his lethal injection.
The US Supreme Court blocked the execution of John Henry Ramirez about three hours after he was likely to be executed. He was condemned for stabbing to death Pablo Castro, 46, who worked at a Corpus Christi convenience store.
Prosecutors said Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times in a series of robberies in which prisoners and two women sought money after a three-day drug binge. Ramirez fled to Mexico but was arrested three and a half years later.
Seth Kretzer, Ramirez’s attorney, argued that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was violating a death row inmate’s First Amendment right to practice his religion by denying his request to be the pastor touched him and prayed as he was executed. He called the ban on praying by voice a spiritual “gag order”.
“It is hostile to religion, denying the practice of religion at the right time when it is most needed: when someone is transitioning from one life to another,” Kretzer said in court documents. .
The lower appellate courts rejected Ramirez’s argument.
Ramirez’s request, 37, is the latest clash between death row inmates and prison officials in Texas and other states over the presence of spiritual counselors in the death chamber.
In recent years, the Supreme Court has authorized a pause in some executions in Texas and Alabama because of the presence of clerics or spiritual counselors in the death chamber. The only execution orders the Supreme Court has issued in recent years involve issues of religious practice or discrimination.
In April, the Texas prison system reversed a two-year ban on allowing spiritual counselors to enter the death chamber. The ban comes after the US Supreme Court in 2019 halted the execution of another inmate in Texas who argued his religious freedom was being violated because of his Buddhist spiritual mentorship. his is not allowed to go with him.
Texas previously allowed working state chaplains to accompany inmates into the cell, but its prison staff consisted of only Christian and Muslim clerics. The new policy allows the prisoner’s approved spiritual advisor to be present in the chamber, but both are not allowed to interact and are not allowed to pray by voice during the execution.
Texas prison officials say face-to-face contact poses a security risk and voice prayers can be disruptive and go against maintaining an orderly process. Aside from several prison officials, the prisoner’s final statement, and a doctor announcing the time of death, no one else usually officially speaks during execution.
Dana Moore, Ramirez’s spiritual counselor for the past four years, said the request for him to touch Ramirez was for the prisoner to practice his Christian faith and treat him “with some of the greatest dignity” determined.”
Moore and Kretzer say the laying on of hands is a symbolic act in which religious leaders place their hands on someone to provide comfort during prayer or spiritual blessings. at the time of someone’s death.
“John’s sentence is not a death sentence and you can’t have any meaningful contact,” said Moore, pastor at Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi. “He is paying the price for his crimes. I guess the question will come up, is that not enough? “
But Mark Skurka, lead prosecutor at Ramirez’s trial in 2008, said while he believes a death row inmate should have a spiritual advisor at the time of execution, there should be restrictions based on concerns about security.
“Pablo Castro can’t have someone praying for him because this guy stabbed him 29 times. Pablo Castro doesn’t get such good payouts and things like to have the presence of a cleric,” said Skurka, now retired from working as Nueces district attorney.
Castro, who had nine children, had been working at the convenience store for more than a decade when he was killed.
“He’s a nice guy. He’ll help everyone in the neighborhood. Everyone likes him,” Skurka said.
Two women who participated in robberies and were convicted of lesser crimes are still in prison.
Six more executions are scheduled for later this year in Texas, the nation’s busiest capital punishment state.