TEXAS VIEW: Allow laying of hands in death cases

THE POINT: This is a chance to show our capacity for compassion as a society.

That John Henry Ramirez will be executed by the state of Texas for the 2004 murder of Pablo Castro isn’t being contested. Ramirez admits to stabbing the Corpus Christi convenience store clerk 29 times in a $1.25 robbery.

Ramirez will pay for his brutal crime with his life. Whether his pastor’s hands will be on his body when he is executed is the only question remaining, but it’s one that raises constitutional questions about the free exercise of religion at the time of execution.

Ramirez has said the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, is violating his First Amendment rights by refusing to allow his pastor to touch him and say prayers at the time of lethal injection. Last week, the U.S Supreme Court granted Ramirez a reprieve to answer this question. His case will be argued in October or December.

We have many questions about the use of the death penalty given instances of wrongful convictions, ineffectiveness as a crime deterrent, cost to taxpayers and racial disparities on death row. These are questions we plan to explore in a future editorial this year.

Specific to this narrow case, TDCJ should grant Ramirez his request.

For years, clergy employed by the state could accompany prisoners into the death chamber. Those clerics, however, were only Christian and Muslim. After the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the execution of another Texas inmate, in 2019, because he wasn’t allowed to have his Buddhist spiritual adviser with him, TDJC put a ban on allowing any spiritual advisers into the death chamber.

That ban was reversed in April with a new policy allowing any inmate’s approved spiritual adviser to be in the chamber, but they can have no contact and spoken prayers aren’t allowed. Security risks and the disruption of the execution process were cited as reasons, but by the time all parties involved have entered the chamber, wouldn’t all security risks have been eliminated?

A spoken prayer and the laying of hands on a person about to be put to death doesn’t mitigate that person’s crimes or stop the execution.

In this, and all such tragic cases, no one deserves more consideration and compassion than the victims and their families.

Castro was the father of nine children, and Ramirez’s murder of him cast a permanent shadow over their lives. No one comforted Castro as he died, and for this, Ramirez will pay the ultimate price for his crime.

Whether he receives spiritual sustenance in the laying of hands at his time of death won’t change this. It will, however, reflect how our Constitution is interpreted and our capacity for compassion as a society.

San Antonio Express-News