Texas was set to put 37-year-old John Ramirez to death on Wednesday, but the Supreme Court halted the execution a few hours after it was set to take place. The court will also hear his case, with a full, formal briefing and oral arguments.
Ramirez was convicted of capital murder in 2008 for killing and robbing Corpus Christi convenience store clerk Pablo Castro.
Keri Blakinger has been following this story with The Marshall Project. She told Texas Standard that the Court did not explain its decision to take Ramirez’s case, but Ramirez had asked that his pastor be allowed to be with him for the execution, and to lay hands on him. Texas prison rules do not allow spiritual advisors to touch prisoners in this situation.
Blakinger says that before a 2019 lawsuit by another prisoner, the only spiritual advisors allowed to be with a prisoner facing execution were the Christian or Muslim chaplains employed by the prison system. The suit resulted in an inmate who wanted a Buddhist spiritual advisor present for his execution having his death sentence stayed.
“During the last legislative session, there was a bill proposed that would have forced the TDCJ [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] to do this,” Blakinger said. “After spending more than $200,000 fighting prisoners’ lawsuits over this, TDCJ abruptly changed policy earlier this year and started allowing spiritual advisers in the death chamber.”
But those advisors cannot speak, or touch the prisoner.
Blakinger says TDCJ has not offered an explanation of the no touching rule, but that prison systems generally cite security concerns for restrictions involving access by spiritual advisors.
Blakinger says it isn’t unprecedented for Texas prison chaplains to touch inmates – that’s according to reporting in Texas Monthly and an account in the memoir of a prison chaplain.
“The idea that laying hands on someone during an execution would somehow lead to a botched execution seems a little far-fetched,” Blakinger said.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in October or November. Blakinger says she will be interested to see whether other Texas prisoners scheduled to be executed before the Ramirez case is heard will file suit based on a desire to have spiritual advisors interact with them at the time of execution.