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Supreme Court considers a minister’s role at the time an inmate is put to death

Pastor Dana Moore, who leads the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, Tex., is at the center of a legal dispute over whether he may pray with and touch death row inmate John Henry Ramirez as Ramirez is executed. The case will be argued at the Supreme Court on Tuesday. (Benjamin Lowy for The Washington Post)

CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. — God’s ways are often mysterious, and so Jan Trujillo doesn’t spend much time wondering why she and other members of Second Baptist Church were called to minister to the men of Texas’s death row.

“We could do something different. Yeah, of course we could,” she said recently. “There are lots of different things we could do that would make people not question why we are volunteering our efforts. But I want to please God, and he asked me to do this.”

That extends to the four other members of 2BC, as the church sometimes calls itself, who pile into Trujillo’s Ford Explorer each month for the 14-hour round trip to the Allan B. Polunsky Unit prison in Livingston. It extends to Pastor Dana Moore, who makes a separate trek to chat and pray, if they request it, with four death row inmates.

Now their mission extends to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices on Tuesday will consider the fate of one of the church’s own — convicted murderer John Henry Ramirez, one of Moore’s charges and a man Trujillo calls her godson.

Ramirez’s case asks the court to consider exactly what kind of religious accommodations must be available to inmates at the moment the state puts them to death, a question that has vexed the court and divided the justices over the last several years.

Ramirez wants Moore by his side in the death chamber, to pray aloud and lay hands on him at the moment the inmate is executed by lethal injection. The state of Texas says its protocols protecting the “security, integrity and solemnity” of executions allow Moore to be present, but only if he stays quiet and does not touch Ramirez.

In an extraordinary move on the night of Sept. 8, the Supreme Court stopped Texas’s plans as Ramirez waited in a holding room next to the death chamber.

Last-minute execution decisions expose wide, bitter rift at Supreme Court

The justices set his case for Tuesday’s expedited hearing, and could use it to provide clarity about what the Constitution and federal law demands for religious accommodations at the time of death, as well as the country’s history and traditions. George Washington, Ramirez’s brief to the court notes, provided for deserters to be attended by clergy before their executions.

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

The state of Texas is blunter. Its brief accuses the 37-year-old of an “ongoing game of ecclesiastical whack-a-mole,” casts doubt on his relationship with Moore and tells the court he is trying to provide a road map for other inmates to stall their executions.

Ramirez killed 45-year-old Pablo Castro in Corpus Christi in 2004, stabbing the convenience store clerk 29 times over pocket change and leaving the father of nine to die in a parking lot. He escaped to Mexico and evaded arrest for more than three years.

Ramirez admits to the murder, and agreed during a recent interview at the prison in Livingston that 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.

His vision for that moment is this: “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.”

It would be important “not only for me, but for him,” Ramirez said. “That’s going to be a powerful testimony for him. I’m sure God will do something with that.”

'Tragic — everything about it'

He would not be the first inmate Moore has seen executed.

The first was Joseph Garcia, who was part of the “Texas Seven” — inmates who escaped prison and killed an Irving police officer in a 2000 Christmas Eve robbery.

When Moore first met Garcia many years later, “he said, ‘Dana, I’m one of the Texas Seven. They’re going to kill me,’ ” Moore recently recalled. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, you’re right. There’s not going to be a loophole for you.’ ”

Garcia was executed in 2018, with a prison chaplain in the death chamber and Moore watching with other witnesses.

“The word I’ve used is that it was tragic — everything about it,” Moore said. “Of course, for Joey. It was tragic for the family of Aubrey Hawkins, that’s the police officer who was killed. It was tragic for everyone there, even those doing the execution. I’m sure that’s not what they want to do — I know that.

“It was tragic for the courts, the judge, the prosecutors, for the defense attorneys, the jurors — certainly it was traumatic for them.”

Moore began seeing death row inmates at the behest of Trujillo. She and her sister, recently deceased, are the reason for Second Baptist’s connection to death row. Trujillo, a retired schoolteacher, was teaching classes at the local jail and one of the women mentioned her son on death row: John Henry Ramirez.

Ramirez said he had told his lawyers to drop his appeals and let the execution go forward. “I got a letter from Jan,” he recalled in the interview. “She said, ‘Don’t give up. God’s not done with you.’ ”

She and her sister began visiting him. That was more than 10 years ago.

“They’re not Bible-thumpers. They’ve never come here trying to ‘save’ me, get another notch on their belt,” Ramirez said.

But he began “digging into the Word on my own,” and the execution of an inmate with whom he was friendly “hit me hard,” Ramirez said. “And I said, ‘I’m going to give my life to God and see what I can do while I’m still here.’ And that’s what I did.”

Ramirez considers himself a Messianic Jew but consented to becoming a member of Second Baptist. By the time Moore began visiting him in 2016, Ramirez was “already a member of my congregation.”

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Second Baptist is a conservative Southern Baptist church, Moore said, and the Supreme Court’s decision to put Ramirez’s execution on hold was big news in Corpus Christi. The pastor decided it was time to address the congregation about his role.

“Have you read about me in the news this week?” he said at the start of that Sunday’s worship. “I know many of you have had questions from your friends: ‘What’s your pastor doing?’ ”

Moore tried to explain. “Really, it’s a case about John being created in the image of God, as he is,” Moore said. “There’s nothing we do that destroys that image. Treating John with dignity doesn’t take away from anyone else.”

Moore promised: “This is not about guilt or innocence. This is not about a loophole. This is about John’s firm belief that he wants me to do my pastoral duty over him in the death chamber. And folks, I had no idea it would get this much publicity, I really did not.”

In an interview, Moore said he does not know if Ramirez’s request will be repeated by the others with whom he meets on death row: one does not have an execution date, one is Catholic, and the other is not a Christian.

Moore resists suggestions that he is being used; the state says in its brief that Ramirez met with Moore only briefly Sept. 8, his execution date, and only because of the “court thing.” Ramirez in the interview said that was only because he knew he would see Moore in the death chamber, and he was using his time that day for phone calls with his family.

When Moore was explaining the case to the congregation, he also told them about Pablo Castro: “He has a name and we pray for him. And specifically we pray for his family. It was a heinous crime.”

One of those children is Aaron Castro, 31, and he has no patience for Ramirez.

“It is a pure manipulation of the system,” said Castro, who works for ESPN in Austin.

The latest stay of execution for Ramirez — there has been one when he claimed ineffectiveness of counsel, and another because of coronavirus restrictions — “was a complete slap in the face,” Castro said.

“This is a guy who killed my father in a horrible, brutal way,” he said. “Did my father have an opportunity to have a priest with him as he moved on to the next life?”

Castro said he once thought that if it would speed the execution, “fine, let him have what he wants. I did think that at one point. But then, no, why does he get to decide?”

Aaron Castro’s siblings filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court: “Pablo Castro’s children—and victims of violent crime across the Nation—deserve better,” it says. “The suffering of Castro’s family has been needlessly exacerbated by nearly decades of undue delays and manipulative, whipsaw litigation tactics.”

Trujillo and those who travel with her each month to Livingston — Raymond Lay, Catana Painter, Michael Kerls and Jerry Lunceford — say they believe Ramirez to be sincere. But they also say conversion or even repentance is not their goal. Two of them have attended the executions of the inmates they’ve befriended.

“They’ve done a bunch of bad things,” Painter said. “But they’re still human beings. God still loves them because he made them.”

“Amen,” Trujillo said.

“There are prisoners there on death row — no families, no friends, they are lost,” Lay said. “They want people to just talk to.”

As for Ramirez, “I’ll know he’s going to heaven. He did what God asked him to do. Now, he didn’t always do that in prison, I can guarantee. I’ve been with him 10 years and there were times . . . ,” Trujillo said, trailing off.

But Trujillo tends to see God’s hand in everything, and she feels like the reprieve from the Supreme Court was God “giving John another few months to be able to witness to other guys on death row.”

When he goes, Trujillo said, “I’ll feel like I did everything God asked me to do for John Henry Ramirez. And his mother.”

The legal questions

The Supreme Court took the case for reasons other than Ramirez’s soul.

The justices have been back and forth on the rights of the condemned under the Constitution and a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. It says officials denying prisoners’ religious-based requests must show a compelling interest and that they are employing the least restrictive means of doing so.

Exactly what that means has been a particular focus at 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.

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It 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 Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., said states could not accommodate some faiths and not others. But he suggested prison officials could avoid constitutional problems by banning all spiritual advisers from the death chamber.

But that appears not to have the full court’s support. In February, 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 her two remaining 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.”

Alabama changed its policy. Smith was executed last month, 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 are supporting Ramirez. The Justice Department recommends the case be sent back to lower courts for additional fact-finding. But it notes that prisoners and spiritual advisers in recent federal executions chanted and prayed together.

Legal scholars and religious groups say history is on the side of Ramirez.

“Hanging, firing squad, electrocution, and the gas chamber all made touch at the exact moment of death infeasible,” the brief from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said. “Yet even with respect to these methods of execution, clergy typically engaged in physical touch up to the last moment.

“For some reason, Texas wants to turn back the clock hundreds of years on the rights of clergy to minister to the condemned,” said Eric Rassbach, senior counsel at Becket. “If King George III could do it back then, and Alabama can do it today, Texas ought to be able to figure it out.

The case is Ramirez v. Collier.