A Latino prisoner brought the debate between the death penalty and religion to the Supreme Court

Protest against the death penalty before the Supreme Court on January 17, 2017, in Washington, DC.

Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP / Getty Images

WASHINGTON – The request of John Ramirez, a latin prisoner that he wants a Baptist pastor to put his hands on his head and pray aloud when he receives the lethal injection, brought this Tuesday before him Supreme court the US debate on the religious rights of those sentenced to death penaltyand.

During a hearing, the nine justices of the Supreme Court, with a conservative majority, heard the arguments of the defense of Ramírez, whose execution was suspended on September 8 while his request is being studied, as well as those of the Department of Justice and the state of Texas .

The case has confronted those who defend the right of those sentenced to the death penalty to receive assistance according to their religious creed in their final moments and those who consider these requests an attempt to delay executions.

Ramirez, 37, was sentenced to death in 2008 for stabbing to death Pablo Castro, a store worker in Corpus Christi, who he stole $ 1.25 from four years earlier.

Since then, Ramírez’s defense challenged the sentence and his execution was delayed twice, once in 2017 and once in September 2020, the latter due to the covid-19 pandemic.

The prisoner has requested the presence of his spiritual advisor, Dann Moore, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, who has visited him for more than four years in prison.

However, this request will force the highest court to decide whether to respect the religious rights of those sentenced to death even in the face of the possibility that similar requests multiply, which could delay or make executions more cumbersome.

Judge Clarence Thomas put the issue on the table, asking if Ramírez is “cheating the system” or if he is questioning “the sincerity of his religious beliefs.”

But Ramírez’s request has not been the only one. According to the publication Scotusblog, the judges have had to deal with other requirements of spiritual advisers during the last two years. Even on October 21, another prisoner, Willie Smith III, was executed while his pastor, Robert Wiley, was at his side.

Witnesses to the execution, according to the publication, said they saw the pastor put his hand on Smith’s leg and apparently prayed for him.

And in Texas, several inmates have followed in Ramírez’s footsteps in recent weeks and asked to have their religious advisers present, causing their executions, including that of the Latino, to be postponed. Ramiro Gonzales.

In Ramírez’s case, the state of Texas and two lower courts had rejected his request on the grounds that this could cause the execution to be stopped and would pose a security risk.

The Attorney General of the State of Texas, Judd Stone, He indicated during his speech that between 1982 and 2019 that state allowed the spiritual advisers to touch and pray aloud with the prisoner in the execution chamber, but he clarified that these companions were employees of the prison system.

He even recognized that prisoners are allowed to pray aloud during their execution. However, he warned that accepting Ramírez’s request would expose him to risk at the time of receiving the lethal injection.

“A small amount of risk can lead to a situation that would create excruciating pain for an inmate,” he argued.

Chief Justice John Roberts raised his concern and described the situation as “swampy ground.”

His colleague Samuel Alito agreed with that thesis, and wondered if after this lawsuit he will not have an “endless stream” of similar cases.

“What is going to happen when the next prisoner says they have a religious belief that they should touch my knee, they should hold my hand, they should put their hand on my heart, they should be able to put their hand on my head?” He wondered.

While the magistrate Brett Kavanaugh, who was one of the most incisive with his questions, expressed his concern that the convicts “move the goalposts”, alluding to a change in the rules of the game.

It was the magistrate of Latin origin Sonia Sotomayor, of progressive tendency, who pointed out that the State must address “the needs of each person.”

The defense, for its part, highlighted the sincerity of Ramírez’s religious beliefs, and indicated that in the last four decades, 572 executions have taken place in Texas, and in some of them the presence of a spiritual advisor was authorized.

The Supreme Court could decide on this case at any time before the end of its current session, at the end of June 2022.