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Death Row Prisoner's Execution Halted As Inmate Fights To Have Priest Lay Hands On Him While Dying

John Henry Ramirez was previously denied a request by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to allow a cleric to be present in the death chamber throughout the duration of his execution.

By Dorian Geiger
John Henry Ramirez Ap

A Texas inmate was granted a stay of execution hours after he was scheduled to be put to death by successfully arguing the state was infringing on his religious freedoms.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution of John Henry Ramirez, 37, after his legal team filed an eleventh-hour petition urging officials to allow a spiritual advisor to be present during his execution.

According to his attorneys, Ramirez was previously denied a request by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to allow a cleric to be present in the death chamber throughout the duration of his execution. Texas laws in this area are murky, specifically surrounding physical contact and religious rites involving spiritual advisors in the death chamber. 

According to prison officials, Ramirez was pleased with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

"He was quiet when I let him know," said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark, the Associated Press reported. "He shook his head and said, ‘Thank you very much. God bless you.’"

Ramirez had specifically requested that Pastor Dana Moore of the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christie perform the ritual laying on of hands-on him during his execution, rather than stand still as he is killed. 

“Pastor Moore is compelled to stand in his little corner of the room like a potted plant even though his notarized affidavit explains that laying his hands on a dying body and vocalized prayers during the transformation from life to death are intertwined with the ministrations he seeks to give Ramirez as part of their jointly subscribed system of faith," the appeal read.

Ramirez first filed his spiritual advisor case in August 2020. He had previously been scheduled to be executed by the state in 2017 but a federal court blocked the execution as his past lawyer neglected to proceed with a clemency hearing, the Texas Tribune reported. The COVID-19 pandemic further delayed Ramirez’s planned execution.

A federal judge had previously denied Ramirez’s motion to stay his execution, which was later appealed. A Fifth Circuit judge ultimately issued a dissenting opinion in the case. Prosecutors also called the sincerity of Ramirez’s religious beliefs into question, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com

On July 19, 2004, Ramirez, along with his co-defendants Angela Rodriguez and Christina Chavez, killed convenience store clerk Pablo Castro during a botched robbery in Corpus Christi. The deadly heist — which netted $1.25 — occurred after a three-day drug binge. Ramirez reportedly stabbed the 46-year-old store clerk 29 times. He later fled to Mexico.

Ramirez had no prison record prior to the 2004 murder. 

“Last night, the Supreme Court declared that the Constitution applies in every last inch of America,” Seth Kretzer, Ramirez’s appointed attorney, told Oxygen.com in a statement. 

Kretzer accused the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Attorney General Ken Paxton of violating Ramirez’s First Amendment rights and of inflicting psychological torment on his client.

“The elegance of the First Amendment is that it applies both high up in the halls of power — and also down low in the hell of an execution chamber,” Kretzer said. “The Supreme Court will not tolerate Texas state officials’ creation of a godless vacuum — even in the darkest little corner of a dark little room.”

Ramirez’s battle highlights the legal debate between prison officials and prisoners in certain states over the involvement of spiritual advisors during executions. According to the Associated Press, the Supreme Court has blocked a number of executions in both Texas and Alabama because of this issue. Religion or discrimination are typically the factors that sway the high court to stay an execution. 

Earlier this year, Texas overturned a two-year ban on spiritual advisers being present in the execution chamber at the time prisoners are killed by the state. The ban was handed down after death row inmate Patrick Dwayne Murphy successfully argued it was unconstitutional to prevent his Buddhist priest from being present during his execution. 

Kretzer called Texas’ ban on prayer in the execution chamber draconian.

“It is ironic that the words ‘one nation under God’ appear in that hallowed hall of justice when the state of Texas is trying to ban the spoken word of the Bible,” Kretzer said. 

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the matter on Nov. 1. 

Kretzer said he’s confident that the Supreme Court will side with Ramirez.

“I look forward to zealously advocating at that proceeding,” Kretzer said. “They’re going to have to tell us what security rationale enables them to keep a pastor from prayer. They’ve never done that so far, and until they do, I don’t think the Supreme Court is going to let them go forward."

A spokesperson for Paxton’s office wasn’t immediately available for comment when contacted by Oxygen.com on Thursday afternoon.

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