John Ramirez, a death-row inmate in Texas, has one last request: He wants his spiritual adviser, a Baptist pastor, to “lay hands on him” and recite vocal prayers during the execution. Prison officials have refused permission.
On Nov. 1, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in his case, hoping to find the delicate balance between vindicating the religious freedom afforded Ramirez and the discretion due to the officials responsible for putting him to death.
Whatever your views on the death penalty, there is no denying that Ramirez committed a truly horrifying crime.
In 2004, Pablo Castro, a father of nine, was working the night shift at the Times Market convenience store in Corpus Christi. Shortly before the store was due to close, Castro went to empty the garbage. He was confronted by Ramirez, who then stabbed him 29 times, stole $1.25 from Castro’s pockets, and left him to bleed to death in the parking lot.
Before the murder, Ramirez had spent three days drinking and using drugs. When he and two female companions ran out of drugs and money, they went driving in search of someone to rob so they could buy more drugs. Ramirez was on probation for a gun charge, and a warrant was out for his arrest at the time.
After murdering Castro, Ramirez went on to rob two other victims using the same knife. One of the victims was a young mother with her 2-year-old son in the back seat of her car. Ramirez fled to Mexico and evaded capture for three years before being caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for Castro’s murder in 2008.
Over the past 12 years, Ramirez has returned to court repeatedly, both at the state and federal levels. His execution has been stayed three times. The most recent stay was issued by the Supreme Court on Sept. 8, the day Ramirez was scheduled to be put to death.
The argument now is not over whether this murderer should be allowed to live, but the precise circumstances in which he dies. Like so many people facing the death sentence, Ramirez has found religion. Texas prison officials don’t have a problem with allowing Ramirez’s spiritual adviser, pastor Dana Moore, to be inside the death chamber at the time of the execution.
State-employed chaplains or outside spiritual advisers who satisfy certain screening requirements are allowed into the death chamber under current execution protocols. But the rules also say that any behavior by the spiritual adviser that prison officials determine “to be disruptive to the execution procedures shall be cause for immediate removal.” The policy is silent on whether advisers may pray audibly or touch inmates during execution. The prison insists that in this case it’s not acceptable.
Is that reasonable? Ramirez’s lawyersargue that Texas’ “method of execution” — namely preventing Moore from physically touching him and praying vocally at the time of execution — violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the free-exercise guarantee of the First Amendment.
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