Supreme Court Rules for Condemned Inmate Who Sought Pastor’s Touch

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Texas may not for now execute a death-row inmate unless his pastor can touch him and pray aloud in the execution chamber.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that states may institute limits on such practices but that outright bans are most likely unacceptable.

“If spiritual advisors are to be admitted into the execution chamber, it would also seem reasonable to require some training on procedures, including any restrictions on their movements or conduct,” he wrote. “When a spiritual advisor would enter and must leave could be spelled out.”

“If the advisor is to touch the prisoner, the state might also specify where and for how long,” he wrote, adding that states can impose limits on audible prayer “to avoid disruption.”

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

The inmate, John Henry Ramirez, was sentenced to death for the murder of a convenience store worker in 2004. Ramirez stabbed the worker, Pablo Castro, 29 times in a robbery that yielded pocket change.

In prison, mr. Ramirez forged a relationship with Dana Moore, the pastor of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. mr. Ramirez asked that his pastor be allowed to touch him and pray out loud with him as he dies.

When prison officials rejected his request, citing security concerns, Mr. Ramirez sued. He said the policy violated his right to exercise his faith at the moment when, as his lawyer put it in a brief, “most Christians believe they will either ascend to heaven or descend to hell — in other words, when religious instruction and practice is most needed.”

Judge David Hittner of the Federal District Court in Houston ruled against Mr. Ramirez, saying it was enough that prison officials intended to allow Mr. Moore “to stand nearby during the execution.” Courts should not become entangled, Judge Hittner wrote, in the minutia of prison security procedures.

A divided three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, upheld the lower court’s decision. In dissent, Judge James L. Dennis questioned Texas’ new policy, which permitted spiritual advisors to be present in the death chamber but prohibited them from touching or praying aloud with the condemned inmates.

“What purpose is there for allowing a spiritual advisor, like a pastor, to be present in the execution chamber if that pastor is prohibited from attending to the spiritual needs of the condemned during the final moments of his life, through audible prayer, physical touch or otherwise?” Judge Dennis wrote. “At the end of life, what does a pastor do but minister to and comfort his parishioner?”

The Supreme Court has taken a variety of approaches to suits in which death row inmates asked that their spiritual advisors be present to comfort them during their executions.

In 2019, for instance, the court allowed by a 5-to-4 vote the execution of an Alabama inmate, Domineque Ray, a Muslim whose request that his imam be present had been denied. At the time, Alabama allowed only a Christian chaplain employed by the system to offer spiritual guidance to condemned inmates during their last moments.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenters in 2019, said the majority was “profoundly wrong.” Under Alabama’s policy, she wrote, “a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites.”

“But if an inmate practices a different religion — whether Islam, Judaism or any other — he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side,” Justice Kagan wrote.

A few weeks later, the court confronted a similar case from Texas and came to a different conclusion, staying the execution of a Buddhist inmate whose request that his spiritual advisor be present in the execution chamber had been denied.

In a brief, unsigned order, the court said that Texas could not execute the inmate, Patrick H. Murphy, “unless the state permits Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual advisor or another Buddhist reverend of the state’s choosing to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber during the execution .”

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