After claiming the state was violating his religious freedom by not allowing his pastor to lay hands on him during his lethal injection, a Texas death row inmate was granted a reprieve from execution on Wednesday evening. He was sentenced to death for killing a convenience store worker during a $1.25 robbery in 2004.
The United States Supreme Court stayed John Henry Ramirez’s execution just three hours before he was scheduled to be executed. He was found guilty of fatally stabbing Pablo Castro, a 46-year-old convenience store employee in Corpus Christi.
Ramirez allegedly stabbed Castro 29 times during a series of robberies in which the convict and two women sought money after a three-day drug binge, according to prosecutors. Ramirez attempted to flee to Mexico but was apprehended 312 years later.
Ramirez’s lawyer, Seth Kretzer, alleged that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was infringing on the death row inmate’s First Amendment right to practice his religion by denying his request for his pastor to touch him and say prayers before he was executed. He referred to the prohibition on vocal prayer as a spiritual “gag order.”
Kretzer said in court documents that “It is hostile toward religion, denying religious exercise at the precise moment it is most needed: when someone is transitioning from this life to the next.”
Ramirez’s appeal had been dismissed by lower appeals courts. Ramirez’s request is the latest in a series of disputes between death row convicts and prison officials in Texas and other states over the participation of spiritual counselors in the execution chamber.
Several executions in Texas and Alabama have been stayed by the Supreme Court in recent years due to the presence of clergy or spiritual counselors in the death chamber. In recent years, the Supreme Court has only given execution delays in cases involving religious practice or discrimination.
The Texas prison system lifted a two-year prohibition on spiritual counselors in the death chamber in April. The order comes after the United States Supreme Court postponed the execution of another Texas convict in 2019 after he claimed his religious freedom had been infringed since his Buddhist spiritual adviser was not allowed to join him.
Texas historically allowed inmates to be accompanied into the chamber by state-employed clergy, but its prison staff consisted solely of Christian and Muslim clerics. The new regulation enables an inmate’s designated spiritual adviser to be present in the execution chamber, but no contact between them is permitted, and no verbal prayers are permitted during the execution.
Direct contact with inmates is a security concern, according to Texas jail officials, and vocal prayer could be disruptive and disrupt the process. Except for a few prison authorities, an inmate’s final statement, and a doctor who announces the time of death, no one else normally speaks formally during an execution.