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On death row in Texas, one last request: prayer and “human contact”

LIVINGSTON, Texas – John Henry Ramirez and Dana Moore both quote the same passage from the Bible when explaining their friendship. “I was sick and you took care of me,” Jesus says in the book of Matthew, describing God bringing the righteous into eternal life. “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Reverend Moore, the pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, visits Mr. Ramirez in prison for more than four years, traveling 300 miles northwest to the Allan B. Polunsky unit in Livingston, where Mr. Ramirez is deceased. rank for over a decade. The two talk about faith and life, speaking through telephone handsets on either side of a thick plexiglass window in the prison parlor.

Mr. Ramirez, 37, often teases Reverend Moore about his “short and sweet” prayers, and they discuss recent sermons at the church, which Mr. Ramirez joined a few years ago. Reverend Moore had to bend the rules to accept his candidacy in absentia, but there was no doubt in his mind that Mr Ramirez was qualified.

Now the men are planning a final meeting, in the death chamber where the state of Texas plans to execute Mr. Ramirez by lethal injection on September 8. And Mr. Ramirez asks something unusual: He wants Mr. Moore to lay his hands on him when he dies.

“It would just be heartwarming,” Mr Ramirez said in an interview at the prison. He wants Reverend Moore to not just watch as the deadly drug cocktail winds its way through an intravenous line in his arm – “poisoned to death,” as he put it – but that he pray out loud and hold her hand or touch her shoulder or foot.

On August 10, Mr. Ramirez filed a federal complaint against prison officials for denying his request. Lawsuit claims state’s refusal to allow Rev. Moore to lay hands on him weighs on his free exercise of religion at the exact moment “when most Christians believe they will ascend to heaven or descend to hell. – in other words, when religious instruction and practice is most needed.

The two men never touched; their whole relationship was conducted through plexiglass. When they pray, they press their palms against the window. Mr. Ramirez rarely experiences any form of physical contact on death row, other than contact with the guards when they handcuff him. He greets his visitors with a punch on the glass, flesh against plastic against flesh. “We have no human contact here,” he said.

As a Baptist, Reverend Moore does not believe in a formal sacrament that must be performed to exact specifications on the brink of death, such as the Catholic practice of administering the last rites. But he said touch is an integral and organic part of his work. When someone walks into a church service for personal prayer, or when they visit a dying person in the hospital, they hold their hand.

In an affidavit submitted with Mr. Ramirez’s lawsuit, Rev. Moore cited the miraculous healing Jesus allegedly accomplished by touching the sick, and how he gathered children in his arms to bless them.

“The power of human touch is more than physical,” he said in an interview. “This is how God created us.

Mr Ramirez was convicted of stabbing to death a Corpus Christi man named Pablo Castro in 2004. Drunk and high, Mr Ramirez was driving with two female friends looking for people to steal when they came across Mr Castro in taking out the garbage to a convenience store where he worked. Mr. Ramirez stabbed him 29 times. Prosecutors described the attack as a theft that grossed $ 1.25.

Mr. Ramirez escaped law enforcement for three years, fleeing to Mexico and starting a family there. He was captured near the border in 2007, convicted and sentenced to death.

Mr. Ramirez takes responsibility for the crime, which he describes as a “heinous murder”. He refused to attribute his actions to his childhood marked by abuse, instability and poverty. “There are a lot of people who live like this and even worse, and they didn’t end up on death row,” he said. “They didn’t end up becoming murderers.

Mr. Ramirez studied various religions during his time in prison, from Catholicism to Jehovah’s Witnesses to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He met the Reverend Baptist Moore through two longtime church members who had visited him through prison ministry; Mr. Ramirez considers the sisters to be his godmothers. Aspects of Jewish beliefs resonated with him as well, and he now sees himself as a Messianic Jew, who believes Jesus to be the Messiah.

But he rejects the stereotype of conversion to prison. He always believed in God, he said, even in his lowest moments. “There are a lot of people who believe that there is a God and they just don’t live properly,” he said. “I just didn’t obey, I wasn’t trying to be good.

Texas’ approach to spiritual advisers during executions has wavered over Mr. Ramirez’s time on death row. The state only allowed chaplains employed by prisons to be present in the death chamber before 2019. But it only employed Christian and Muslim clerics as chaplains. When a Buddhist inmate named Patrick Murphy argued that the state violated his rights by not providing access to a Buddhist chaplain, the Supreme Court agreed.

But Judge Brett Kavanaugh offered the state a concurring opinion. Texas had two options, he wrote. He could provide a Buddhist chaplain for Mr. Murphy, or he could deny access to the execution chamber to all religious advisers, including Christians and Muslims. Texas accepted the suggestion, relegating all spiritual advisers to an observation room adjacent to the chamber.

This spring, however, after the Supreme Court stopped another execution for the restrictive policy, the agency again changed course, allowing those on death row to have access to a spiritual advisor of their choice.

For defenders of prisoners, the role of a spiritual advisor at the time of death is profound.

“You stand up for the dignity of the human being, that everyone is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” said Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty activist who served as a spiritual advisor to six. detained during their execution. days.

In the last moments of life, she says, what she can offer is her presence. “At the end, it’s ‘Look at my face’,” she said. “Everyone else in this room is here to kill them.”

This presence also engenders a moral obligation, said Sister Helen. Unlike state-employed prison chaplains, outside spiritual advisers can be an “independent voice,” describing what they see in the room. “It is the secrecy, the distance and the separation that have allowed the death penalty to be applied during all this time,” she said.

In its response to Mr. Ramirez’s complaint, the state says strict restrictions in the execution chamber are a matter of security and that Mr. Ramirez’s request opens the door to increasingly onerous religious demands. .

“Everything around the Texas enforcement process and enforcement protocol is based on safety and security,” said Jeremy Desel, director of communications for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Mr Ramirez’s attorney, Seth Kretzer, rejected this argument. “You are in the safest facility in the entire prison system,” he said.

Mr. Ramirez’s plea pits law and order against compassion and respect for individual faith. These conflicting impulses both have a strong influence in Texas, said Kent Ryan Kerley, professor and president of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas at Arlington. “It is mercy against justice, which one do they choose? ” he said. “It’s a perfect test case.”

For Mr. Ramirez, it’s hard to see denial as anything other than resentment. ” What’s going to happen ? I will have a real spiritual moment when I die and you don’t want me to have this? he said. “Do you want to hide this from me too?” “

In a poem he wrote in 2018, he spoke of his deep loneliness in prison:

Comfort me like a hug
while I wait for the final tug.
Of that noose around my collar
will you notice when I scream?

For now, he expects his execution in a little over a week, or a last minute reprieve. He’s ready to die, he says. “I really want to get the hell out of here,” he said. “Anyway, I know where I’m going. I know what I believe in.

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