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SCOTUS Sides With Death Row Inmate Who Wants Baptist Pastor to ‘Lay Hands’ On Him During Execution

John Henry Ramirez pictured sitting in the visitation room in prison, behind Plexiglas

John Henry Ramirez pictured sitting in the visitation room in prison, behind Plexiglas.

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled 8 to 1 in favor of death row inmate John Henry Ramirez Thursday, upholding a preliminary injunction and ruling that Ramirez is likely to succeed on his request to have his pastor audibly pray and physically touch him while he is being executed.

Ramirez was convicted for the 2004 murder of Pablo Castro, a convenience store worker in Corpus Christi, Texas.  A trial determined that Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times, robbed the father of nine and grandfather of 14 of $1.25, and left him to die on the pavement.

The high court’s ruling regarding the pastor will affect neither Ramirez’s conviction nor his death sentence. Rather, it may allow Ramirez to have his spiritual advisor, Baptist Pastor Dana Moore, audibly pray over Ramirez and “lay hands upon him at the time of his death.”

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) refused Ramirez’s request on the grounds that as of April 2019, its policy was to disallow all visits into the execution chamber. Prior to that change, TDCJ allowed approved Christian and Muslim chaplains inside the chamber, but TDCJ adjusted its policy after a prisoner sued to have a Buddhist chaplain allowed in as well. Rather than follow legal anti-discrimination mandates, TDCJ opted to exclude all chaplains from the death chamber.

Ramirez raised a successful challenge to TDCJ’s rule which excluded his pastor from entering the execution room and then continued to fight for the right to have Moore physically “lay hands” on him and pray out loud during the execution.  The issue before SCOTUS was a preliminary one: whether Ramirez’s execution should be temporarily halted until a fact-finding court can fully examine whether the denial of his request would amount to a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). In general terms, RLUIPA prohibits the government from burdening the “religious exercise” of incarcerated individuals unless such a burden furthers “a compelling governmental interest.”

Writing for the Court’s eight-member majority, Chief Justice John Roberts held that SCOTUS was satisfied that, as required, Ramirez exhausted all administrative remedies before bringing a lawsuit. Roberts detailed:

The record indicates that Ramirez tried to resolve the issue informally with a prison chaplain. When that did not work, he filed a Step 1 grievance requesting that his pastor be allowed to “‘lay hands on me’ & pray over me while I am being executed.”  Prison officials denied that grievance, and Ramirez timely appealed.  His Step 2 grievance reiterated, “I wish to have my Spiritual Advisor ‘lay hands on me’ to pray over me during my upcoming execution.”  Ramirez’s grievances thus “clearly stated” that he wished to have his pastor touch him and pray with him during his execution.  In the context of Texas’s grievance system, that is enough.

Furthermore, ruled the justices, Ramirez “is likely to succeed in proving that his religious requests are ‘sincerely based on a religious belief'” as required by RLUIPA.  The Court reasoned that laying hands is a traditional form of religious exercise, and that Ramirez had a history of requesting that Pastor Moore do so in the past.  Given the sincerity of Ramirez’s belief and the unlikelihood of Texas proving that complying with the request constitutes a substantial burden, the justices opted to side with Ramirez.

On the issue of audible prayer, Roberts referenced the “rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution, dating back well before the founding of our Nation.” He traced the custom back through colonial times and to the present day.  Texas’s refusal to allow the practice, noted Roberts, is new — it dates back only to the last several years.

Roberts dispensed with Texas’s argument that absolute silence is crucial to the execution process. Though the chief justice allowed that “audible prayer could present a more serious risk of interference during the delicate process of lethal injection than during the method of execution (hanging) that was used in most of the historical examples,” the majority found that a categorical ban on audible prayer is not the least restrictive means of meeting the government’s interests.

The chief justice also examined Texas’s second argument:  that allowing spiritual advisors to pray aloud during executions might provide an opportunity for those advisors to make statements that could traumatize the victim’s family or otherwise cause chaos.

“We agree that the government has a compelling interest in preventing disruptions of any sort and maintaining solemnity and decorum in the execution chamber,” Roberts wrote. “But there is no indication in the record that Pastor Moore would cause the sorts of disruptions that respondents fear.”

Similarly, on the issue of physical touch during the execution, Roberts called the state’s goals (security in the execution chamber, preventing unnecessary suffering, and avoiding further emotional trauma to the victim’s family members) “commendable.” Still, the Court was unconvinced. Roberts pointed out that the current rules allow a spiritual advisor to stand just three feet from the inmate and that getting slightly closer likely would not make a meaningful difference to safety or security. The majority found that TDCJ’s “real concern seems to be with other, potentially more problematic requests down the line,” rather than the specific risks posed by Ramirez’s individual case.

Roberts allowed that further proceedings “might shed additional light on Texas’s interests, and on whether its policies are narrowly tailored,” but he pointed out that “such proceedings might also contribute to further delay in carrying out the sentence.”

“The State will have to determine where its interest lies in going forward,” he warned.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor penned a brief concurrence in which she pointed out the legal obligations of both prison officials and incarcerated individuals to “act in good faith in resolving disputes.” Prison officials must clearly and timely communicate their rules and must ensure that “the administrative process proceeds swiftly enough to permit exhaustion with sufficient time for the individual to seek judicial review, if necessary, prior to a scheduled execution.” Acting in good faith, Sotomayor explained, “means that neither incarcerated individuals nor prison officials should unnecessarily wait to act until the end of time available to them.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh also wrote a concurrence to add three points of his own. Kavanaugh traced the recent history of requests for spiritual advisors in executions and underscored the need to avoid discrimination against certain religions. He also remarked that such claims have evolved into “religious liberty” claims for those advisors to engage in practices such as audible prayer.

Kavanaugh next considered the requirement under RLUIPA that the state must balance its “compelling interest” against an inmate’s request.

“But what does ‘compelling’ mean, and how does the Court determine when the State’s interest rises to that level?” he asked. “And how does the Court then determine whether less restrictive means would still satisfy that interest?”

“Good questions, for which there are no great answers,” he responded.

Kavanaugh concluded by praising the majority for providing “some guidance” to states on difficult issues involved in inmate requests during executions and advised that “it may behoove States to try to accommodate an inmate’s timely and reasonable requests about a religious advisor’s presence and activities in the execution room if the States can do so without meaningfully sacrificing their compelling interests in safety, security, and solemnity.”

Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting in the ruling. In a 23-page dissent, Thomas recounted the additional facts of Castro’s gruesome murder and Ramirez’s flight to Mexico afterward. Thomas explained that he would have denied Ramirez’s request because the equitable balance swings in favor of the state’s position.

“Unsurprisingly, death-row inmates generally employ any means available to stave off their sentences and therefore often engage in abusive litigation,” remarked Thomas. Federal courts, he explained, must therefore use their authority to protect state judgments and sentences.

Likening Ramirez’s lawsuit to his attempt to flee from police, Thomas wrote, “Ramirez’s current RLUIPA suit is but the latest iteration in an 18-year pattern of evasion.” Thomas elaborated on his thoughts about Ramirez’s request as nothing more than delay tactic:

All told, Ramirez’s 11th-hour gambit in January 2017 bought him more than three years of delay. In the end, none of Ramirez’s federal habeas claims merited even a single certificate of appealability, let alone relief. Yet, through ceaseless litigation, strategic delay, and a “[l]ast-minute” blitz on the District Court, Ramirez parlayed his federal habeas petition into a 7-year deferral of his lawfully imposed sentence. We should interpret Ramirez’s actions in the instant litigation in light of that history, recognize that his shifting in-chambers-touching claim is just another chapter in that history, and reject his most recent attempt to delay his execution.

Ramirez’s delay, to hear Thomas tell it, “has has inflicted recurrent emotional injuries on the victims of his crime,” who are forced to stand by while the inmate exploits “loopholes.”

Thomas next railed against the insincerity of Ramirez’s request — a concern that came through during  Thomas’s questions at oral arguments. The justice dissented:

Here, Ramirez not only brought his claims piecemeal; he executed a bait and switch. He first demanded his pastor’s presence without touching, but then shifted and demanded touching when requesting Moore’s presence alone no longer gave him an excuse for delay. The majority’s analysis simply fails to factor in Ramirez’s inequitable conduct.

Thomas went a step further, painting a picture of the dystopian world the majority has created, in which the state is “seen as the blameworthy party,” and is forced to capitulate to death row prisoners’ dangerous demands.

The justice also remarked that in his opinion, Ramirez’s lack of sincerity is exactly why his RLUIPA claim is not likely to succeed on the merits. In Thomas’s assessment, Ramirez’s requests were neither timely, nor properly made, nor believable.

“In RLUIPA, Congress created a potent tool with which prisoners can protect their sincerely held religious beliefs,” he wrote. “But, like any tool, it can be wielded abusively. And few have a greater incentive to do so than death-row inmates.”

Seth Kretzer, counsel for Ramirez, provided the following statement to Law&Crime via email Thursday:

The Supreme 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. We look forward to prevailing in the forthcoming litigation about the issue of whether Mr. Ramirez’s pastor may safely touch him during execution just as prison-employed chaplains have done in every execution over the past 37 years. But after an 8-1 Supreme Court loss, the time has come for General Paxton to sit down and consider whether he really wants to continue with this failed, taxpayer-funded battle against religious exercise.

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.

“Even the condemned have a right to get right with God,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president & senior counsel at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an amicus in the case. “The Supreme Court correctly recognized that allowing clergy to minister to the condemned in their last moments stands squarely within a history stretching back to George Washington and before. That tradition matters.”

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, another amicus supporting Ramirez’s position, said in a statement Thursday, “As the court made clear, Texas has given no good reason for denying Mr. Ramirez’s reasonable request for basic religious accommodations during the execution. This welcome decision will help him find spiritual comfort in his final moments.”
[screengrab via KRIS-6 News]

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos