By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune
Nearly three hours after John Ramirez was scheduled to die in a Texas prison Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court halted his execution.
It’s the third time since 2019 that the nation’s high court has stopped a Texas execution over the state prison system’s rules on how religious advisers can attend to condemned prisoners as they die. In a short order Wednesday night, the court asked that oral arguments be brought before the justices in October or November.
Ramirez, 37, was convicted of capital murder in 2008 and sentenced to die for the 2004 murder and robbery of Pablo Castro, a convenience store clerk in Corpus Christi. Court records state Ramirez had stabbed Castro 29 times during a robbery spree to get drug money with two women. Castro had $1.25 on him.
After his execution had been set this year, Ramirez’s last request to the state had been to let his pastor hold on to him as he died.
It was a request the Texas prison system had rejected. Ramirez argued the decision violated his religious rights, but lower courts have sided with the state.
“[The Texas Department of Criminal Justice] has a compelling interest in maintaining an orderly, safe, and effective process when carrying out an irrevocable, and emotionally charged, procedure,” U.S. District Judge David Hittner ruled last week.
The district judge added that TDCJ “will accommodate Ramirez’s religious beliefs by giving Ramirez access to his pastor on the day of execution and allowing him to stand nearby during the execution.”
TDCJ’s current execution protocol allows for prisoners’ spiritual advisers to be in the death chamber, but standing in the corner “due to security concerns,” according to an email from the agency’s general counsel included in the court record.
“I understand that I will be able to stand in the same room with John during his execution, but I will not be able to physically touch him,” Dana Moore, the pastor at Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, wrote in an affidavit filed in court last month. “I need to be in physical contact with John Ramirez during the most stressful and difficult time of his life in order to give him comfort.”
For years, chaplains employed by TDCJ would often be in the room during executions, praying and resting a hand on the prisoner’s leg. But the agency only had Christian and Muslim advisers on staff.
In 2019, when a Buddhist prisoner was told his adviser would not be allowed in the room with him as he was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital, he argued it was religious discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, halting the March 2019 execution and setting into motion a yearslong back-and-forth over Texas’ execution protocols.
Days later, TDCJ opted to even the playing field by banning chaplains of any religion inside the death chamber, including its own staff. Spiritual advisers could instead stand in the small adjacent rooms where friends and family of the murder victims and prisoners, as well as media, gather.
Then, in June 2020, the nation’s high court stopped another Texas execution because of the state’s new policy on chaplains. The condemned man argued it violated his religious freedoms, and the justices ordered lower courts to determine “whether serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution.”
This April, TDCJ again revised its execution policy — allowing those on death row to have their personal religious advisers in the room with them as they are executed, provided the advisers first are verified, pass a background check and complete a state orientation. But unlike the TDCJ chaplains, spiritual advisers from outside the agency are not allowed to touch the prisoners as they die.
Ramirez’s attorney, Seth Kretzer, likened the policy to a “spiritual ‘gag order’” in court filings. The Texas Attorney General’s Office countered that the current policy “accommodates [Ramirez’s] religious needs by allowing his pastor to visit and pray out loud with him for up to two hours immediately prior to his execution.”
The state also argued that allowing Ramirez access to rituals for his beliefs would open the door for other religions as well.
“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,” Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Wren Morris wrote in a court filing last month.
Kretzer responded that such acts didn’t seem “unduly burdensome.”
“There seems to be a thread of religious hostility throughout the State’s shifting positions,” he said in his court filing.
The federal district court and the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had both declined to halt Ramirez’s execution over the issue. But the U.S. Supreme Court again stepped in, stopping the execution and asking for arguments in the case just before 9 p.m. Wednesday. Ramirez’s execution was originally scheduled for 6 p.m.
Ramirez has faced execution twice before, in 2017 and 2020. Both times, his executions were canceled — due to an attorney swap and the coronavirus, respectively. Castro’s son, Aaron, told KRIS 6 News in Corpus Christi recently that the continued delays were unnecessary and it was Ramirez’s “time to go.”
“Honestly, if he wants a priest to bless him before he’s sent off, by all means, go ahead. That doesn’t affect me one bit,” Aaron Castro, who was 14 when his father was murdered, said to KRIS. “What affects me is why this process continues to get delayed time and time again.”
On Wednesday night, Kretzer said he felt horrible for both Castro and Ramirez’s family, who sat for hours in a Texas prison waiting for the execution that never came. He said they “made the state aware repeatedly” of the policy’s constitutional violations. A prison witness list showed Ramirez’s wife, brother, godmother and two friends planned to attend his execution. Four children of Castro were also expected to stand witness.
Texas has executed two men so far this year, the only state to do so in 2021, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The federal government executed three men in January, before President Joe Biden took office. Another six men are set to be executed in Texas this year, with another man’s death scheduled for March.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by The Texas Tribune.