Supreme Court stays execution of Texas inmate who wants preacher with him, agrees to hear appeal

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The Supreme Court late on Sept. 8 granted a last-minute reprieve to a convicted murderer in Texas who wants his pastor physically by his side, touching him, and praying aloud for him at the time of his execution.

The case, Ramirez v. Collier, was filed with the Supreme Court on Sept. 7. The condemned man is John Henry Ramirez. The respondent is Bryan Collier, executive director of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice.

On July 19, 2004, a 20-year-old Ramirez, seeking money to buy drugs, robbed and murdered Pablo Castro, 46, stabbing him 29 times in a convenience store parking lot. Ramirez obtained $1.25 in loot from Castro. Ramirez robbed a second victim at knifepoint and tried to rob a third. He absconded to Mexico, evading arrest for 3 1/2 years, according to prosecutors.

The application for stay of execution of sentence of death and the petition for review was presented to Justice Samuel Alito and referred by him to the full court. No justices indicated they dissented from the stay or the granting of the petition. The single-page order states, “The Clerk is directed to establish a briefing schedule that will allow the case to be argued in October or November 2021.”

Speaking for Texas, Collier cited “the security risk posed by an outsider’s presence in the execution chamber,” and argued in his brief in opposition that the execution ought to proceed.

“That a state may not impose policies coercing an inmate to do what his religious tenants forbid does not mean that it must accede to his every religious demand,” he said in the document. “By design, prisons impede inmates’ freedom to behave as they might wish, which, necessarily limits some of their religious behavior.”

Collier noted that the district court determined that his agency’s current execution protocol “accommodate[s] Ramirez’s religious needs.” Ramirez is allowed to visit with his pastor from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. on the morning of his execution, and then again from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. prior to his execution, he added.

“For up to six hours, then, Ramirez’s chosen pastor may read scriptures and pray aloud with him. And when it is time for his sentence to be carried out, Ramirez himself may pray aloud as a final statement while his chosen pastor stands with him in the execution chamber.”

Collier said Ramirez’s legal arguments were not compelling. The appeals court found Ramirez “failed to identify any jurisdiction in which outside spiritual advisors are permitted to pray aloud and make physical contact with an inmate during his execution,” he wrote.

Ramirez’s attorney, Seth Kretzer, argued in the petition filed with the Supreme Court that Texas is depriving his client of his constitutionally protected right to exercise his religion, as well as running afoul of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

“The right of a condemned person to the comfort of clergy—and the corresponding right of clergy to comfort the condemned—are among the longest-standing and most well-recognized religious exercises known to civilization.”

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act provides for “expansive protection for religious liberty,” giving an inmate “greater protection” than relevant First Amendment precedents, Kretzer wrote, citing the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Holt v. Hobbs.

The Supreme Court has shown an increasing willingness in recent years to rule in favor of death row inmates who want prison officials to allow spiritual advisers.

In February of this year the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to convicted murderer Willie B. Smith III, who is incarcerated in Alabama.

Smith, now 51, was sentenced to death in 1992 for abducting, robbing, and murdering Sharma Ruth Johnson, 22, the year before. Johnson’s remains were found in her burned-out car. She had been shot in the head execution-style in a cemetery after begging for her life.

Alabama enacted a policy in 2019 forbidding an inmate from being accompanied by any religious representative in the room in which the execution takes place. Before that, the state had required the presence of a prison chaplain at an inmate’s side.

Smith argued that going forward with his execution without his pastor’s presence in the death chamber violated his First Amendment-protected religious freedoms. Alabama officials subsequently reached an accommodation with Smith and agreed to allow his spiritual adviser to minister to him in the execution chamber.

The Alabama Supreme Court scheduled a new execution date of Oct. 21 for Smith.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared September 9, 2021, in The Epoch Times.