Texas death row inmate sues to have pastor’s touch in execution chamber

Christine Rousselle   By Christine Rousselle for CNA

Pastor Dana Moore of Second Baptist Church Corpus Christi / Second Baptist Church Corpus Christi/YouTube

Washington D.C., Aug 13, 2021 / 14:21 pm (CNA).

A man scheduled to be executed in early September is suing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to have his pastor lay hands on him as he is dying.

John Henry Ramirez, 37, is set to be executed on Sept. 8, at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. He seeks to have Pastor Dana Moore of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi present with him as he receives lethal injection, and laying hands on him as he is dying.

The “laying on of hands” is a Christian practice of blessing someone. Moore has been Ramirez’s spiritual advisor for the last five years.

While Texas did not permit any spiritual advisors in the execution chamber for a two-year period from April 2019 until April 2021, it does now allow for personal religious ministers to accompany the inmate inside the chamber.

However, the state criminal justice department in June told Ramirez’s lawyers that direct personal contact by his pastor would not be permitted inside the chamber.

Ramirez’s attorneys filed a lawsuit on Aug.12 in federal district court, claiming that the state is violating his First Amendment rights in denying him the “direct, personal contact” of his pastor. The laying on of hands is a “a long-held and practiced tradition in Christianity in general and in the Protestant belief system Mr. Ramirez adheres to,” the complaint states.

The state has not “indicated” it will even allow Moore to be present with Ramirez at his death, the lawsuit claims.

Ramirez was sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of 45-year-old convenience store clerk Pablo Castro in 2004. Ramirez and two women attempted to rob Castro for money to buy drugs. Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times. Castro had $1.25 on him, which the three took.

The women were arrested the night of Castro’s murder, and both were sent to prison in 2006. One of the women, Christina Chavez, was convicted of three counts of aggravated robbery and was sentenced to 25 years in jail. The other, Angela Rodriguez, was convicted of two counts of aggravated robbery and one count of murder. Rodriguez was sentenced to life in prison but will be eligible for parole in 2035.

Ramirez was arrested nearly four years later, in February 2008. He was found near Brownsville, Texas, near the border between the United States and Mexico.

This is the third time Ramirez has attempted to delay his execution after previously attempting to have it expedited. In June 2011, Ramirez said he wanted to waive his appeals, saying, in part, that he did not want to waste taxpayer money keeping him on death row, and that he wanted to bring justice to the Castro family “in a speedy fashion.”

In September of that year, Ramirez changed his mind after discovering he has a half sister.

Six years later, in 2017, Ramirez successfully requested a stay of execution, after asking for a different lawyer. In 2020, his execution was once again delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

His lawsuit says that the state’s denial of personal contact by his pastor “places a substantial burden” on his religious practice. He says the state is denying it to him during the “‘spiritually charged final moments of life,’ leading up to and including his execution, when religious observance and spiritual guidance are most critical.”

“No compelling security interest justifies the burden on his religious exercise,” the lawsuit states.

The state of Texas in 2019 banned all prison chaplains from its execution chamber, following a Supreme Court order that halted the execution of a man requesting a Buddhist minister in the chamber. Only state employees are allowed to be with the condemned in the execution chamber, and Texas did not have a Buddhist chaplain on staff.

However, rather than hire a Buddhist chaplain, Texas decided to bar the practice of allowing chaplains in the execution chamber altogether. Murphy’s execution has not been rescheduled and he remains on death row.

In April 2021, the state issued a revised policy allowing ministers inside the execution chamber. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled favorably toward a Catholic death row inmate seeking the presence of a priest in the chamber. 

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