The Austin Chronicle

Death Watch: Supreme Court Halts John Henry Ramirez's Execution Over Religious Freedom Appeal

Court will hear Ramirez's case for pastor's touch during execution this fall

By Brant Bingamon, September 24, 2021, News

John Henry Ramirez was ready to be put to death on Sept. 8 for the killing of Corpus Christi convenience store clerk Pablo Castro in 2004. Ramirez's pastor Dana Moore and his family members – as well as Castro's children – gathered at the Huntsville Unit north of Houston, waiting for the 37-year-old to be wheeled into the state's execution chamber at 6pm. At the time, however, the U.S. Supreme Court was still considering Ramirez's appeal that prison officials had denied his right to free exercise of religion by refusing to let Moore touch and pray with him as he died by lethal injection. It wasn't until 9pm that the news came down: The court stayed Ramirez's execution and scheduled oral arguments in his case for Nov. 1.

At the center of those arguments is an inmate's right to a spiritual adviser at the moment of execution, specifically the scope of aid advisers can and cannot administer. "This might be the fastest moving case in the history of the Supreme Court because the issue is one of national importance," said Ramirez's attorney Seth Kretzer, noting that the Oct. 27 execution of Texas inmate Ruben Gutierrez was stopped over similar religious freedom concerns. "SCOTUS needs to tell the federal trial courts what the rules of the road are."

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice's policy on spiritual advisers' access to the execution chamber has fluctuated as inmates have filed religious freedom appeals in recent years. The department's longstanding policy was to allow advisers inside the chamber as long as they were TDCJ's own chaplains – all but one of whom were Christian. In 2019, TDCJ barred spiritual advisers of all faiths from the chamber after the Supreme Court stayed the execution of a Texas death row inmate whose request for a Buddhist spiritual adviser had been denied by prison officials. Then, in an abrupt reversal this April, TDCJ decided spiritual advisers chosen by prisoners and vetted by the state could enter the chamber, but they would only be allowed to stand silently in a corner – like a potted plant, as Kretzer describes it.

Ramirez is asking that his pastor be allowed to lay hands on him and pray aloud as he dies. TDCJ has argued that such actions are a security risk – how, it doesn't say. But earlier this month, District Judge David Hittner ruled in favor of the department, writing that it has a compelling interest in maintaining "orderly, safe, and effective" executions.

Kretzer appealed, calling Hittner's decision a "spiritual gag order" and asking how a pastor praying aloud can compromise security, given that advisers are put through background checks and thoroughly screened before being admitted onto prison grounds. The Office of the Attorney General, representing TDCJ, seemed to characterize the department's policy as being more about convenience rather than security. "Where a Protestant may request his pastor's hands upon him as he passes, a Muslim may prefer for his body to be washed and shrouded immediately upon his passing, and a Buddhist, that his body be untouched for seven days after his death," wrote Assistant A.G. Jennifer Wren Morris.

"One must politely ask, what of it?" Kretzer responded in a subsequent filing. "The washing and shrouding a body and untouching of a body for a respectful period hardly seem unduly burdensome." – Brant Bingamon

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