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Death row inmate sues Texas prison demanding pastor’s touch during execution by lethal injection

Death row inmate sues Texas prison demanding pastor’s touch during execution by lethal injection
Attorneys of a Texas prisoner set to be executed next month have filed a lawsuit claiming that the inmate’s wish to have a pastor lay hands on him as he dies had been denied by prison officials. It might see the execution stayed.

John Henry Ramirez, 37, convicted of stabbing to death a convenience store worker after a robbery in 2004, is scheduled to be put to death through a lethal injection on September 8. 

In the most recent case of legal fights over spiritual advisers’ presence during execution, attorneys for Ramirez filed a federal lawsuit this week, demanding his pastor from a local congregation of the Second Baptist Church be allowed to lay hands on him in his final moments. However, the suit says Texas state prison officials would not allow this to happen, the Associated Press reported.

In the suit, lawyers cite a 2019 case when the US Supreme Court halted the execution of Patrick Murphy in Texas. That inmate demanded a Buddhist spiritual adviser in the execution chamber, with the court ruling in his favor – and no new execution date has been set.

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Ramirez himself has already had two stays of execution, one due to an attorney change and the other because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In another case of a postponed capital punishment, Texas prisoner Ruben Gutierrez, convicted of murder in a robbery, was granted a reprieve by the US Supreme Court in 2020, just one hour before he was scheduled to die from a lethal injection. 

The decision came following a Catholic church’s campaign supporting the inmate’s wish to have a pastor present in the death chamber. 

In February this year, another inmate – Willie Smith in Alabama – was also granted a last-minute stay of execution by the court, ruling that he was unlawfully denied a priest’s presence by his side during execution. Non-prison staff were not allowed in the room, with officials referring to security reasons. 

Texas revised its execution protocol this year to allow spiritual advisers to be present in the death chamber. Under the amendment adopted in April, “death-row prisoners may be accompanied into the execution chamber by their personal religious adviser, who may minister to the condemned prisoner during the execution,” the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) stated. 

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“I don’t think Texas was animated by a spirit of humanity,” Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), said at the time. Instead they simply “clearly understood that this was a way to make executions happen.”

Capital punishment is legal in 27 states, though it is not practiced in all of them. Lethal injection is the primary method for execution. Since 1976, over 1,500 death-row inmates have been executed, but the numbers have seen a sharp decrease in recent years. According to DPIC statistics, 17 prisoners had their sentence fulfilled in 2020, and five were put to death this year. 

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