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Supreme Court calls off execution of Texas inmate fighting for last rites

Trying to get money to buy drugs, a former Marine slashed the throat of a convenience store clerk and made off with $1.25. He is now a devout Baptist and wants his minister to lay hands on him when he is executed to guide him to the afterlife.

(CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court late Wednesday stayed the execution of a Texas inmate and agreed to let him present his claims that his spiritual adviser should be allowed to lay hands on him and pray out loud when he is executed.

A Nueces County jury convicted John Henry Ramirez, 37, of capital murder and sentenced him to death in December 2008 over the 2004 murder of Corpus Christi convenience store clerk Pablo Castro.

Trying to get money to buy drugs, Ramirez, a former Marine, accompanied by two women, stabbed Castro 29 times and slashed his throat and made off with $1.25.

He fled to Mexico but was arrested in 2008 near Brownsville.

Ramirez’s reprieve is the third time since 2019 the Supreme Court has called off the execution of a Texas inmate over the state’s rules for letting prisoners’ spiritual advisers give them last rites in the death chamber.

This is also the third time Ramirez's execution has 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.

Ramirez’s counsel, Seth Kretzer of Houston, sued Texas prison officials in August, claiming their refusal to let Ramirez’s Baptist minister, Dana Moore, pray with him and lay hands on him in the death chamber “to help guide him into the afterlife” as he is executed from a lethal dose of pentobarbital – Texas’ method of carrying out executions – violates his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

“It burdens his free exercise of his faith at his exact time of death, when most Christians believe they will either ascend to heaven or descend to hell—in other words, when religious instruction and practice is most needed,” the lawsuit stated.

But a Houston federal judge declined to stay the execution. Ramirez appealed to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, where a divided panel also refused to intervene.

Writing for the majority of the Fifth Circuit's three-judge panel, Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Priscilla Owen, a George W. Bush appointee, said the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s rules that only allow its medical team to touch the condemned in the execution chamber are justified.

“The complexities attending the administration of drugs in the execution procedure and its failures expose the risks of non-medical hands on the body of a person undergoing the procedure," Owen wrote. "This is plainly a humane effort with constitutional footing."

Ramirez then filed an emergency application with the Supreme Court and his execution, set for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, was delayed, as prison officials waited for word from the high court.

The court called off the execution around 9 p.m. Wednesday and ordered the case be fast-tracked for oral arguments in October or November.

This undated photo shows John Henry Ramirez, a Texas death row inmate. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP)

Texas’ rules for clergy in the death chamber have been in flux of late, under changes set in motion by a reprieve the Supreme Court granted Buddhist inmate Patrick Murphy in spring 2019.

Murphy’s attorneys said Texas’ policies at the time violated the First Amendment because the TDCJ maintained that for security reasons only its employees could be present during executions.

Because the TDCJ only employed Muslim and Christian chaplains, Murphy argued, death-row adherents to those faiths could have chaplains give them their last rites but Buddhists could not.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh gave Texas a choice: allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room or let them have a religious adviser only in the viewing room, not the execution room.

The TDCJ changed its policy in early April 2019 so only security staff members were allowed in the death room.

But it changed its rules again in April of this year, authorizing inmates’ approved spiritual advisers to be present during executions after the Supreme Court halted Texas inmate Ruben Gutierrez’s execution over his challenge to the state's claims that serious security issues would result from Gutierrez’s Catholic priest accompanying him during his execution.

Gutierrez, convicted of capital murder for the stabbing death with a screwdriver of an 85-year-old woman in 1998, says he is innocent. He is set to be executed Oct. 27. But like Ramirez, he has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit over the TDCJ denying his request to have his Catholic priest touching him and praying out loud as he is executed.

“Gutierrez is a devout Catholic and considers these practices to be part of last rites,” his attorney Peter Walker, an assistant public defender in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, wrote in his lawsuit.

In Ramirez’s case, Texas warned the Supreme Court that granting him a reprieve would lead to federal courts having to micromanage future executions.

It also claimed Ramirez had not proven its policy places a substantial burden on his exercise of religion because it was only declining to accommodate all his religious needs.

Two days before Ramirez’s scheduled execution, Aaron Castro, the son of the man Ramirez murdered, told a Corpus Christi media outlet he was tired of all the delays.

“He's a disgusting human being,” Castro told KRIS-TV. “I think what he did was uncalled for. I don't see any excuse in anyone's book or anyone's mind that could justify his action. Stop crying, stop trying to get around the situation. There's no way out. You need to be executed."

Texas has six more executions set for 2021, the most of any other state.

The Lone Star State has carried out far more executions than all other states since 1976, when the Supreme Court lifted a ban on capital punishment in the U.S. it had instituted in its 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia.

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