WASHINGTON (CN) — A man facing capital punishment found sympathy but likely no relief Tuesday as the Supreme Court weighed his request to have his spiritual adviser be allowed to touch him and pray out loud before he is executed.
The legitimacy of the inmate’s request and the possibility of the spiritual adviser attempting to interfere in the execution were among the questions that plagued the justices as they considered the case of Texas inmate John Ramirez, 37, who was convicted by a jury of capital murder and sentenced to death in December 2008.
Ramirez, a former Marine, was trying to get money to buy drugs in 2004 and accompanied by two women when he stabbed convenience store clerk Pablo Castro 29 times, slashed his throat and made off with a dollar and 25 cents. He fled to Mexico but was arrested in 2008.
Ramirez sued Texas prison officials after he realized that his Baptist minister, Dana Moore, would not be allowed to pray with him and lay hands on him in the death chamber “to help guide him into the afterlife” as he was executed with a lethal dose of pentobarbital – Texas’ method of carrying out executions. He said this violates his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
Houston-based attorney Seth Kretzer said Tuesday morning on behalf of Ramirez that, when they found out that the state would not allow laying of hands by a pastor during execution, they filed a complaint “within days.”
“Mr. Ramirez filed his request in July of 2021. The state sat on this for six weeks until we were right on the cusp of the execution,” Kretzer told justices Tuesday.
Speaking on behalf of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Tuesday, however, Texas Solicitor General Judd Stone expressed doubts that Ramirez’s appeal was sincere, noting that Texas had granted the inmate’s request in April 2021 to have his pastor in the chamber during his execution.
“If Ramirez was aware of the entire time that he wanted pastoral touch and audible prayer, he has no excuse for failing to timely raise and grieve those requests,” Stone said, further arguing that Ramirez’s successful work staying his execution in suggest he is gaming the system.
“The state's execution procedures publicly available as of this April,” Stone said.
Ramirez’s case came up through the high court after a Houston federal judge declined to stay the execution. He then appealed to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, where a divided panel also refused to intervene. Finally, he filed an emergency application with the Supreme Court, and his execution, set for 6 p.m. on a Wednesday in September, was delayed, as prison officials waited for word.
The court called off the execution around 9 p.m. that Wednesday and ordered the case be fast-tracked for oral arguments.
Ramirez’s September reprieve was the third time the inmate’s execution had been delayed. The first came in 2017, when courts granted his request for a new attorney, and the second last September with his attorney successfully arguing it should be pushed back due to health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“This court should not countenance the delay of a fourth execution date,” Stone said Tuesday.
Along these lines, Justice Clarence Thomas asked the inmate’s attorney about the sincerity of the request during questioning.
“If we think that Mr. Ramirez has changed his requests a number of times and has filed last-minute complaints — if we assume that that's some indication of gaming the system, what should we do with that with respect to assessing the sincerity of his beliefs?” Thomas asked.