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Supreme Court says death row inmate entitled to pastor’s touch at execution

(Patrick Semansky/AP)

The Supreme Court on Thursday boosted the religious rights of death row inmates, ruling 8 to 1 in favor of a Texas murderer who wants his Baptist pastor to touch him and pray aloud at the time of his execution.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority that the rights of John Henry Ramirez were protected by federal law and that Texas should be able to accommodate his requests without compromising the lethal injection process.

The lone dissenter was Justice Clarence Thomas, who said he doubted Ramirez’s sincerity and included in his opinion a lengthy description of Ramirez’s crime.

Lower courts had ruled against Ramirez, 37, who was convicted of stabbing to death Pablo Castro in a 2004 robbery in Corpus Christi, Tex., that netted pocket change. His guilt was not an issue in the case.

In an extraordinary move on the night of Sept. 8, the Supreme Court stopped Ramirez’s planned execution as the inmate waited in a holding room next to the death chamber. It set an expedited hearing in the case for Nov. 9.

Roberts said the issue was the requirements of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. It protects the religious rights of inmates and requires states to justify any restrictions on them as being the most narrow way to protect a compelling state interest.

Texas could not prove that in denying Ramirez’s request for prayer and the “laying on of hands” by his pastor, the court concluded.

Previous coverage: The Post traveled to a Texas church where outreach stretches to death row

“There is a rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution, dating back well before the founding of our Nation,” Roberts wrote. He added that Texas could similarly accommodate the request for touch without interfering with the lethal injection process.

If the pastor already is allowed in the death chamber, “we do not see how letting the spiritual advisor stand slightly closer, reach out his arm, and touch a part of the prisoner’s body well away from the site of any IV line would meaningfully increase risk,” Roberts wrote. “And that is all Ramirez requests here.”

Ramirez said he has given his life to God since the killing. He wants the man who has been his spiritual adviser for several years, Pastor Dana Moore of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, to be in the death chamber with him, to touch him and pray aloud for his soul.

In an interview with The Washington Post last year, Ramirez admitted to the murder and agreed he would like to prolong his time on what he prefers to call “life row,” spreading the word of God and working on an application for clemency.

But he also acknowledged it is more likely he will be executed, and said his vision of the moment is that “Pastor Dana would touch me while I was still alive and breathing. I’d want him to feel my heart and feel when I transition.”

Texas contended Moore could attend the execution only if he stayed quiet and away from Ramirez. It said its restrictions protected the “security, integrity and solemnity” of executions.

Moore said he was grateful for the ruling. “The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold John’s religious rights is a blessing, and it stresses the importance of religious liberty and religious practice for everyone,” he wrote in an email.

Lower courts ruled against Ramirez, accepting his religious sincerity but questioning whether the timing of his request was simply a delaying tactic.

Supreme Court seems split on condemned man’s request for pastor at execution

That resonated with Thomas. “Ramirez has manufactured more than a decade of delay to evade the capital sentence lawfully imposed by the State of Texas,” the justice wrote. “This Court now affords yet another chance for him to delay his execution.”

In sending the case back to the lower court, Roberts said states could proceed more quickly by adopting clear rules in advance, mindful of the protections of federal law. He said the proper remedy for lower court judges facing disputes is to order the accommodation rather than put the execution on hold.

“This approach balances the State’s interest in carrying out capital sentences without delay and the prisoner’s interest in religious exercise,” Roberts wrote.

The issue of what kind of religious accommodations must be made when an inmate is put to death has vexed the court since 2019. That is when the justices on a 5-to-4 vote allowed the execution in Alabama of Domineque Ray, a Muslim whose request for an imam to be with him was denied.

Alabama only employed Christian chaplains at that time. A dissenting Justice Elena Kagan said that was discrimination. “If an inmate practices a different religion — whether Islam, Judaism or any other — he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side,” she wrote, joined by the court’s other liberals.

Supreme Court’s execution decision animates critics on the left and right

The majority’s decision to the contrary touched off a wave of criticism across the ideological spectrum, and a few weeks later the court seemed to have second thoughts. It stayed the execution of a Buddhist inmate in Texas with a request similar to Ray’s.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, joined by Roberts, agreed states could not accommodate only certain faiths. But he suggested prison officials could avoid constitutional problems by banning all spiritual advisers from the death chamber.

But there was not support on the court for that. In February 2021, the justices delayed the execution in Alabama of Willie B. Smith III, a Christian who was denied a request to have his pastor with him.

Kagan wrote again, this time joined by two liberal colleagues and new Justice Amy Coney Barrett: “The law guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference, including at the moment the State puts him to death,” Kagan wrote.

Alabama changed its policy, and Smith was executed with a pastor at his side, praying aloud and touching Smith on the leg. At a subsequent execution, an inmate was anointed with oil before lethal injection.

Still, Alabama joined a handful of other states filing a brief with the Supreme Court saying the “safety and security of state execution protocols should not be subject to federal court micromanagement.”

On the other side, the Biden administration and interest groups across a wide ideological spectrum supported Ramirez. The Justice Department noted that prisoners and spiritual advisers in recent federal executions chanted and prayed together.

Ramirez’s lawyer Seth Kretzer said Thursday’s decision settled the issue.

“Banning prayer by clergy members will not be permitted under the American legal system in even the most dejected square foot of this country,” Kretzer said in a statement. “We look forward to prevailing in the forthcoming litigation about the issue of whether Mr. Ramirez’s pastor may safely touch him during execution just as prison-employed chaplains have done in every execution over the past 37 years.”

In a concurring opinion, Kavanaugh emphasized that states that still employ the death penalty should work now on how to accommodate the religious requests of the condemned.

“It may behoove States to try to accommodate an inmate’s timely and reasonable requests about a religious advisor’s presence and activities in the execution room if the States can do so without meaningfully sacrificing their compelling interests in safety, security, and solemnity,” Kavanaugh wrote.

“Doing so not only would help States avoid future litigation delays but also would serve the exceptionally powerful interests of victims’ families in finally obtaining closure.”

The case is Ramirez v. Collier.