The United States Supreme Court intervened in a Texas death penalty case on Wednesday, granting a stay of the execution of a convicted killer who challenged the constitutionality of the state’s denial of his request for a pastor to lay hands on him while he dies, as The Hill reports.
John Ramirez was found guilty in 2008 of the brutal, deadly stabbing of 46-year-old father-of-nine Pablo Castro in a Corpus Christi convenience store, a crime in which he robbed his victim of a mere $1.25, and which resulted in a death sentence that was set to be carried out in 2017.
Ramirez’s initial execution date was stayed by a federal court in Texas, but was later rescheduled for the Fall of 2020, though that date was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns, and during the latter years of his incarceration, Ramirez developed a relationship with Corpus Christi pastor Dana Moore.
In the run-up to his scheduled execution, Ramirez requested that Moore be allowed to remain by his side in the death chamber, to pray over him as the process was initiated, and lay hands on him as he died, though the Texas attorney general held that existing policy permitting two hours of prayer with a pastor prior to the execution was sufficient.
According to prison officials in the Lone Star State, contact such as that requested by Ramirez would represent a security threat, also arguing that the vocalized prayers could pose disruptions and render the execution process disorderly.
A federal judge ultimately denied Ramirez’s claim that the policy was a violation of his First Amendment right to practice his religious faith and, as the convict’s attorney called it, “a spiritual gag order,” and the issue was ultimately brought to the high court for review, with the justices stopping the execution from moving forward roughly three hours after it was slated to occur, as NPR noted.
In reaction to the stay, Pastor Moore said that Ramirez’s request was simply an act of a faithful person seeking to practice his Christian faith and to receive “a certain amount of dignity” in his last moments.
Mark Skurka, lead prosecutor in Ramirez’ original trial, however, lodged a poignant disagreement, saying, “Pablo Castro didn’t get to have somebody praying over him as this guy stabbed him 29 times. Pablo Castro didn’t get afforded such niceties and things like to have a clergyman present.”
It its brief order staying Ramirez’s execution, the Supreme Court called upon its clerk to develop a briefing schedule that would facilitate arguments in the case being heard this fall, perhaps even as early as October.