Death Watch: Conveyor Belt to Lethal Injection Keeps Rolling

Ramirez will be prayed over as he dies

Death Watch: Conveyor Belt to Lethal Injection Keeps Rolling

The Texas death penalty is often likened to a machine, an impersonal device conducting individuals along a conveyor belt to death. The machine is composed of a surprisingly large number of judges and prosecutors and the rules they write to make it run. Six sets of judges – three from the state and three more at the federal level – must deny the appeals of the condemned before an execution can proceed. There's also the Attor­ney General's Office, whose assistant attorneys general and their staffs argue for death.

And, as we see in the case of John Henry Ramir­ez, district attorneys are important parts of the machine. Once an inmate's appeals have been exhausted, the D.A.'s office of the county that prosecuted him must ask a judge to set an execution date, called a death warrant, to initiate an execution. In other words, district attorneys have the power to spare certain inmates from death. Some, particularly in larger cities, have done so in recent years, refusing to seek death warrants for condemned people in their jurisdictions out of an abhorrence for the death penalty.

Which brings us to Ramirez's case. He was scheduled to be put to death on Sept. 8 of last year for the murder of Pablo Castro in Corpus Christi in 2004. But the Supreme Court called off the execution at the last minute (actually, three hours after the last minute) to consider Ramirez's request that prison officials allow his pastor to touch him and pray out loud as he died by lethal injection. The court subsequently ruled that Texas had denied Ramirez the free exercise of his religion by refusing to grant his request. Texas authorities were ordered to change their execution protocol.

So it seemed that Ramirez was safe from execution, at least for a while. When executions are canceled it often takes the state years to reschedule. But in Ramirez's case the district attorney's office asked for a new death warrant just after the Supreme Court's ruling – or, it did initially. Within two days of making the request, and having it accepted, Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez asked District Judge Bobby Galvan to withdraw the order, saying it had been requested by mistake. In a hearing before Judge Galvan, Gonzalez said he hadn't realized he wasn't required to ask for the death warrant. By the time he did, an assistant D.A. had already requested it. Gonzalez explained that he never would have asked for the warrant if he'd known he didn't have to because "the death penalty is unethical and should not be imposed on Mr. Ramirez or any other person while I occupy this office."

According to Ramirez's attorney, Seth Kretzer, judges almost always grant prosecutors' requests to withdraw death warrants. But Galvan refused to do so in this case, expressing doubts about his authority and suggesting Gonzalez appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Gonzalez did. On Sept. 22, the TCCA denied his appeal.

So the Texas death machine lurches forward, past mistakes and misgivings. Meanwhile, Ramirez is, by all accounts, a changed man. He's active in prison ministry and at the prison radio station, and has become a gifted artist working in pen and ink. Kretzer is asking the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute his client's sentence to life without parole but told The New York Times last week that "the chances are not exactly good." If Ramirez's execution proceeds as scheduled on Oct. 5, he'll have his pastor, Dana Moore, praying aloud beside him as he dies.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

John Henry Ramirez, Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, Seth Kretzer

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