Texas executes inmate who fought prayer, touches rules

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A Texas death row inmate whose case redefined the role of spiritual advisers in death chambers nationwide was executed Wednesday, despite efforts by a district attorney to stop his lethal injection.

John Henry Ramirez, 38, was executed at Huntsville State Penitentiary. He was convicted of murdering Pablo Castro, 46, in 2004 as he took out the trash while working at a convenience store in Corpus Christi.

In March, the United States Supreme Court sided with Ramirez, saying States must adapt the wishes of those on death row who want their religious leaders to pray and touch them during their executions.

In the execution chamber, his spiritual advisor, Dana Moore, placed his right hand on the inmate’s chest and held it there for the duration. With his back to the witnesses, Moore offered a brief prayer.

“Look at John with your grace,” he prayed. “Grant him peace. Grant us all peace. At the end of Moore’s prayer, Ramirez replied, “Amen.”

After the prayer, Ramirez addressed five of Castro’s relatives – including four of his children – as they watched through a window a few feet away from him. “I have regrets and remorse,” he said. This is such a heinous act. I hope this finds you comfort. If that helps, then I’m happy.

“Hope this somehow helps you find the solution.”

Ramirez expressed his love to his wife, son and friends, concluding with, “Just know that I’ve fought a good fight and I’m ready to go.”

When the lethal dose of pentobarbital kicked in, he took several short breaths and then began to snore. Within a minute, all movement stopped. Ramirez was pronounced dead 14 minutes later at 6:41 p.m. CDT.

Prosecutors said Ramirez stole $1.25 from Castro and then stabbed him 29 times. Castro’s murder took place during a series of robberies committed by Ramirez and two women following a three-day heavy drug binge. Ramirez fled to Mexico but was arrested 3½ years later.

Ramirez challenged state prison rules that prevented his pastor from touching him and praying aloud during his execution, saying his religious freedom was being violated. This challenge led to his delayed execution as good as executions of others.

In March, the The United States Supreme Court sided with Ramirezsaying States must adapt the wishes of those on death row who want their religious leaders to pray and touch them during their executions.

On Monday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Pardons unanimously refused to commute Ramirez’s death sentence to a lesser one. According to his lawyer, Ramirez had exhausted all possible remedies and no final request to stop the execution was filed with the United States Supreme Court.

The lead prosecutor in Ramirez’s 2008 trial, Mark Skurka, said it was unfair that Ramirez had someone praying for him as he died when Castro did not have the same opportunity.

“It’s been a long time coming, but Pablo Castro will likely finally get the justice his family has been asking for for so long, despite legal delays,” said Skurka, who later served as a Nueces County prosecutor before retiring.

Ramirez’s attorney, Seth Kretzer, said while he empathizes with Castro’s family, his client’s challenge was to protect religious freedoms for all. Ramirez wasn’t asking for something new but something that has been part of the case law throughout history, Kretzer said. He said even Nazi war criminals received ministers before their execution after World War II.

“It was not a reflection on a favor we were doing for the Nazis,” Kretzer said. “Ensuring religious administration at the time of death reflects the relative moral strength of the captors.”

Kretzer said Ramirez’s spiritual advisor was also authorized to hold a Bible in the death chamber, which had not previously been permitted, but witnesses were unsure whether Moore was carrying the book.

Ramirez’s case took another turn in April when current Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez asked a judge to withdraw the death warrant and delay the execution saying it was requested in error. Gonzalez said he considers the death penalty “unethical.”

During a nearly 20-minute Facebook Live video, Gonzalez said he believed the death penalty was one of “many things wrong with our justice system.” Gonzalez said he would not seek the death penalty as long as he remains in office.

He did not return a phone call or email seeking comment.

Also in April, four of Castro’s children filed a petition asking that Ramirez’s execution order be upheld.

“I want my father to finally have his justice and peace to finally move on with my life and let this nightmare end,” Fernando Castro, one of his sons, said in the motion.

On Wednesday night, Fernando Castro described the punishment as “long in coming” and said Ramirez’s apology to him and his siblings “wasn’t going to bring our father back”.

“He could say what he wanted to say. Is it true, who knows? I feel like my dad finally got justice, but I’m not happy with the situation.

In June, a judge denied Gonzalez’s request to remove Wednesday’s execution date. Last month, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to even consider the request.

Ramirez was the third inmate to be put to death this year in Texas and the 11th in the United States. Two more executions are scheduled for this year in Texas, both in November.

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Lozano reported from Houston.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

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