TEXAS VIEW: Don’t deny a dying man’s religious request

THE POINT: Texas has decided John Ramirez must die. It shouldn’t dictate how.

In 2008, John Henry Ramirez, 37, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die for the 2004 murder and robbery of Pablo Castro, a convenience store clerk in Corpus Christi.

But his scheduled September execution was delayed, not because of something to do with his case but because of an issue over how Ramirez wants to die.

Ramirez has requested that his pastor, Dana Moore of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, be in the death chamber with him, praying aloud and touching him at the moment of death. The state of Texas says its protocols protecting the “security, integrity and solemnity” of executions allow Moore to be present, but only if he stays quiet and does not touch Ramirez.

Given the enormous burden that comes with taking a life as punishment, we believe the state has a responsibility to show compassion as much as possible here, so long as it doesn’t threaten safety or interrupt the appropriate decorum of the death chamber.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case and, according to reporting by The Washington Post, the justices seemed split into unusual alliances. The court’s conservative members, who are typically hawkish on religious freedom issues, seemed skeptical of Ramirez’s request, while the court’s more liberal members seemed sympathetic.

Texas Solicitor General Judd E. Stone II argued that Ramirez’s request was simply an effort to delay execution, and that the state has a right to reduce the risk of disruptions during the event.

The former point stands only because the state opposes Ramirez’s request. The delay is as much the fault of the state as the inmate.

The latter point is stronger. Certainly, prison officials have a responsibility to keep the scene orderly and safe. They have a right to vet anyone who enters the death chamber and require certain behavior of them. But the state didn’t seem to convince the justices that safety would be threatened by Ramirez’s request. Justice Elena Kagan asked Stone whether any other state that allowed similar behavior reported problems with decorum. Stone couldn’t produce such an example, The Post reported.

We’re not comfortable with the state being the arbiter of religious expression. A Protestant warden, for instance, shouldn’t reject a condemned man’s request for last rites because he’s unfamiliar with that practice. On the contrary, we would say the state has an extreme obligation toward compassion in these situations because, let’s not forget, the state is taking a human life. The death penalty is a practice we have opposed because it is too unreliably and inconsistently meted out. And, appropriate for this discussion, it is a practice opposed by many faith leaders.

As long as Ramirez’s religious expression isn’t dangerous or disorderly, the state should find a way to accommodate a dying man’s request.

The Dallas Morning News