The Texas Supreme Court has stayed an execution due to an inmate's desire for a pastor's touch.
On Wednesday, death row convict John Henry Ramirez obtained a temporary stay of execution from the Supreme Court.
The United States Supreme Court granted a Texas death row inmate a stay of execution Wednesday over his argument that the state violated his religious freedom by not allowing his pastor to lay hands on him before his lethal injection.
Wednesday evening, the Supreme Court stayed John Henry Ramirez's execution almost three hours before he could have been executed. Ramirez was condemned to death for fatally stabbing Pablo Castro, 46, a Corpus Christi convenience store worker, in 2004 during a $1.25 robbery.
Ramirez was in a small holding cell at the Huntsville Unit jail, just a few feet from the Texas execution chamber, when he was informed of his reprieve by Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark.
“He remained silent when I informed him,” Clark explained. “He shook his head and replied, 'Many thanks. God's blessings on you.'"
The Supreme Court directed in its brief ruling that its clerk arrange a briefing timetable so that Ramirez's case might be heard in October or November.
According to prosecutors, Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times during a series of thefts in which Ramirez and two female accomplices wanted money following a three-day drug binge. Ramirez attempted to flee to Mexico but was apprehended 312 years later.
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Ramirez's attorney, Seth Kretzer, alleged that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was violating his client's 1st Amendment right to religious freedom by denying his request for his pastor to touch him and offer prayers during his execution. Kretzer referred to the prohibition of loud prayer as a spiritual "gag order."
“It is anti-religious, restricting religious exercise at precisely the time when it is most needed: during a person's journey from this world to the next,” Kretzer stated in court records.
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Ramirez's argument had been rejected by lower appeals courts.
Ramirez's request is the latest in a series of clashes between death row convicts and prison officials in Texas and other jurisdictions over the participation of spiritual advisors in the execution chamber.
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The Supreme Court has granted multiple stay of executions in Texas and Alabama in recent years due to the presence of clergy or spiritual counselors in the execution chamber. The Supreme Court has granted only two stay of executions in recent years, both of which were related to religious practice or discrimination.
The Texas prison system lifted a two-year prohibition on spiritual advisors in the death chamber in April. The order comes after the Supreme Court stayed the execution of another Texas inmate in 2019 on the grounds that his religious freedom was being infringed by his inability to accompany his Buddhist spiritual counselor. Patrick Murphy, the man who was sentenced to death, remains on death row.
Previously, Texas permitted state-employed clergy to accompany detainees into the chamber, but its prison staff consisted exclusively of Christian and Muslim clerics. The new protocol permits an inmate's designated spiritual advisor to be present in the chamber, but the two cannot communicate, and vocal prayers are not permitted during the execution.
Direct contact, according to Texas prison officials, creates a security concern, and prayers spoken aloud could disrupt what should be an orderly execution process. Generally, no one talks in public during an execution, with the exception of a few jail officials and a doctor who announces the time of death. Additionally, an inmate's final statement can be read aloud.
Dana Moore, Ramirez's spiritual advisor for the last four years, explained that the request to touch Ramirez was about allowing Ramirez to exercise his Christian faith and treating him "with some dignity."
According to Moore and Kretzer, laying on of hands is a symbolic act in which religious leaders place their hands on someone to bring comfort during prayer or to bestow a spiritual blessing at the time of death.
However, Mark Skurka, the lead prosecutor in Ramirez's 2008 trial, stated that while he believes a death row convict should have a spiritual counselor present at the time of execution, he feels security concerns should be addressed.
“Pablo Castro was denied the opportunity to have someone pray over him as this man stabbed him 29 times. Pablo Castro was not granted such niceties and things as having a chaplain present,” said Skurka, who is now retired after serving as district attorney for Nueces County.
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Castro, a father of nine, had worked at the convenience store for more than a decade before his assassination.
“He was a decent man. He would lend a hand to those in need in the area. “Everyone adored him,” Skurka explained.
The two women who conspired with Ramirez in the robberies but were acquitted on lesser crimes remain in prison.
Six further executions in Texas are set for later this year.