Texas prisoner who fought for prayer, touching rules to be executed

HOUSTON (AP) – A Texas death row inmate whose case clarified the role of spiritual advisers in death chambers nationwide is scheduled for execution Wednesday, despite a district attorney’s efforts to stop his lethal injection.

John Henry Ramirez, 38, was sentenced to death for killing 46-year-old Pablo Castro, a convenience store employee, in 2004. Prosecutors said Castro was taking out the trash from the store in Corpus Christi when Ramirez robbed him of 1 .25 dollars and stabbed him. him 29 times.

Castro’s killing occurred during a series of robberies; Ramirez and two women had stolen money after 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 U.S. Supreme Court sided with Ramirez, saying states must honor the wishes of death row inmates who want their faith leaders to pray and touch them during their executions.

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 has exhausted all possible appeals and no final request to the US Supreme Court is planned.

The lead prosecutor at Ramirez’s 2008 trial, Mark Skurka, said it was unfair that Ramirez would have someone pray for him as he dies, 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, Dana Moore, will also be able to keep a Bible in the death chamber, which had not been allowed before.

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 stay the 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.

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.

If Ramirez is executed, he would be the third inmate killed this year in Texas and the 11th in the U.S.

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

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