Texas executes inmate who fought plea, touch rules

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) – A Texas death row inmate whose case redefined the role of spiritual counselors in death chambers across the country was executed Wednesday despite a district attorney’s efforts to stop his lethal injection.

John Henry Ramirez, 38, was executed at the state prison in Huntsville. He was convicted of killing 46-year-old Pablo Castro in 2004 while taking out the trash while working at a Corpus Christi convenience store.

“I regret and regret,” Ramirez told five relatives of Castro — including four of his children — as they watched through a window a few feet from him. “This is such a despicable act. I hope this finds you comfort. If this helps you, I’m happy.

“I hope this in some way helps you find closure.”

Expressing love for his wife, son and friends, he ended with, “Just know that I fought a good fight and I’m ready to go.”

As the lethal dose of pentobarbital took effect, he took several short breaths and then began snoring. Within a minute all movement stopped. He was pronounced dead 14 minutes later, at 6:41 p.m. CDT.

Prosecutors said Ramirez robbed Castro of $1.25 and stabbed him 29 times. Castro’s killing occurred during a series of robberies by Ramirez and two women following a three-day drug spree. Ramirez fled to Mexico but was arrested 3½ years later.

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

In March, the US Supreme Court sided with Ramirezsays states must accommodate requests from death row inmates who want their religious leaders to pray and touch them during their executions.

Before Ramirez made his final comments, his spiritual advisor, Dana Moore, placed his right hand on the inmate’s chest and held it there throughout the execution. With his back to witnesses, Moore offered a brief prayer.

“Look upon John with your grace,” he prayed. “Give him peace. Give us all peace.” He spoke of “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

As Moore’s prayer ended, Ramirez replied, “Amen.”

On Monday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously declined to commute Ramirez’s death sentence to a lesser sentence. According to his lawyer, Ramirez had exhausted all possible appeals and no final request to stay the execution was filed with the US Supreme Court.

The lead prosecutor at Ramirez’s 2008 trial, Mark Skurka, said it was unfair that Ramirez had someone to pray over him as he died, since 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 sought for so long, despite the legal delays,” said Skurka, who later served as Nueces County’s district attorney before going on pension.

Ramirez’s attorney, Seth Kretzer, said that while he empathizes with Castro’s family, his client’s challenge was about protecting religious freedom for all. Ramirez was not asking for something new, but something that has been part of case law throughout history, Kretzer said. He said that even Nazi war criminals were given ministers before their execution after World War II.

“It was not a reflection on a service we did for the Nazis,” Kretzer said. “The provision of religious administration at the time of death is a reflection of the relative moral strength of the prisoners.”

Kretzer said Ramirez’s spiritual adviser was also allowed to keep a Bible in the death chamber, which had not been allowed before, but it was unclear from testimony whether Moore carried 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 sentence and delay execution, saying it had been requested in error. Gonzalez said he considers the death penalty “unethical.”

During a nearly 20-minute Facebook Live video, Gonzalez said he believes the death penalty is one of the “many things wrong with our justice system.” Gonzalez said he would not seek the death penalty while 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 motion asking that Ramirez’s execution order be vacated.

“I want my father to finally get his justice as well as peace to finally move on with my life and let this nightmare be over,” Fernando Castro, one of his sons, said in the proposal.

On Wednesday night, Fernando Castro described the sentence as “a long time coming” and said Ramirez’s apology to him and his siblings “wouldn’t bring our father back.”

“He could say what he wanted to say. Whether it’s true, who knows? I feel like my father finally got his justice, but I’m not happy about the situation.”

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

Ramirez was the third inmate killed this year in Texas and the 11th in the United States. Two more executions are scheduled 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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