Texas Inmate Can Have Pastor Pray, Touch Him During Execution: SCOTUS

A Texas death row inmate should be permitted to have his pastor touch him and audibly pray with him during his lethal injection, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Thursday.

The Court ruled 8-1 to overturn an earlier decision by a lower court that ruled against John Ramirez's request to have his pastor lay hands on him and engage in prayer during the execution, Reuters reported.

The ruling is a victory for advocates for the religious rights of condemned inmates. The Court's decision to hear Ramirez's case led to a delay in his execution, as well as the scheduled executions of other condemned inmates in the state, until the justices' ruling, the Associated Press reported.

Ramirez was condemned to die after being convicted of murder in the 2004 killing of Pablo Castro, an employee of a convenience store in Corpus Christi, Texas. He stabbed Castro 29 times during a robbery in which he obtained only $1.25, according to the AP.

While in prison for the crime, Ramirez connected with Dana Moore, a pastor from the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, The New York Times reported. After prison officials denied his request to have Moore touch him and pray out loud during his execution, Ramirez sued. He maintained that he was being denied his right to practice his religion at a crucial moment.

While lower courts decided to uphold the decision by Texas officials, the Supreme Court decided to hear his case and has now ruled in his favor.

John Ramirez SCOTUS Ruling
A Texas death row inmate should be permitted to have his pastor touch him and audibly pray during his lethal injection, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Thursday. Above, an undated photo of the inmate, John Ramirez, provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Texas Department of Criminal Justice via Associated Press

In the court's majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts negated many of the main concerns presented by Texas officials, who had cited issues like potential interference in the lethal injection process and security inside the execution chamber. Regarding audible prayer, for example, Roberts wrote that the state "appears to have long allowed prison chaplains to pray with inmates in the execution chamber, deciding to prohibit such prayer only in the last several years."

He also wrote that Texas could avert potential interference with the IV drug lines by having the pastor touch a part of the body away from the lines, "such as a prisoner's lower leg."

Justice Clarence Thomas was the only member of the court to dissent, saying that Ramirez's lawsuit was part of a long effort to delay his execution, the AP said.

In a statement shared with Newsweek, Ramirez's lawyer, Seth Kretzer, said that the Court "clarified that the rule of law is as ubiquitous as God."

"Both exist everywhere and always—high up in the hallowed halls of power and down low in the hell of the execution chamber. Banning prayer by clergy members will not be permitted under the American legal system in even the most dejected square foot of this country," the statement read.

"If the state of Texas wants to keep fighting, my law firm says 'bring it on.' But I do not believe any death penalty case in American history has been reversed by 8-1 in the Supreme Court. The writing is on the wall," Kretzer added.

The case, Ramirez v. Collier, named Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) Executive Director Bryan Collier.

"We respect the court's decision and will be making appropriate modifications to our practices to align with today's ruling," the TDCJ told Newsweek.

Update 3/24/22, 4:55 p.m. ET: This story was updated with a statement from the TDCJ.