At the death of Texas, one last request: a prayer and a “human contact”

LIVINGSTON, Texas – John Henry Ramirez and Dana Moore quote the same passage from the Bible as they recount their friendship. “I was sick and you took care of me,” Jesus says in the book of Matthew, which describes God leading the righteous to eternal life. “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Rev. Moore, pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Corpus Christi, has been visiting Mr. Ramirez in prison for more than four years, driving 300 miles northwest to the Allan B. Polunsky Unit in Livingston, where the Mr. Ramirez is dead. rowing for over a decade. The two men talk about faith and life, talking through phones on either side of a thick plexiglass window in the prison’s living room.

Mr. Ramirez, 37, often mocks Moore’s reverence for his “short, sweet” prayers and discusses recent sermons at the church, where Mr. Ramirez became a member a few years ago. Rev. Moore had to bend the rules to accept his application in absentia, but he had no doubt 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 Sept. 8. And Mr. Ramirez is asking for something unusual: he wants Mr. Moore to lay his hands on him at the time of his death.

“It would be comforting,” Ramirez said in an interview in prison. He wants Reverend Moore not only to watch the fatal drug cocktail snake through an intravenous line in his arm – “poisoned to death,” he said – but to pray aloud, hold his hand, or touch his shoulder or foot.

On August 10, Mr. Ramirez filed a federal lawsuit against prison officials for denying his request. The lawsuit alleges that the state’s refusal to allow Reverend Moore to lay hands on him charges his free exercise of religion at the exact moment “when most Christians believe they will ascend to heaven or descend to heaven.” hell, that is, when religious instruction and practice is most necessary. “

The two men have never touched; their whole relationship has been carried out through Plexiglas. When they pray, they press their palms over the window. Mr. Ramirez rarely experiences any kind of physical touch on the death row, other than contact with guards when handcuffs are placed around his wrists. He greets visitors with a punch in the window, from meat to plastic to meat. “We don’t have any human contact here,” he said.

As a Baptist, the Rev. Moore does not believe in a formal sacrament to be performed according to exact specifications on the verge 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 shows up at church service for a personal prayer or when he visits a dying person in the hospital, he takes their hand.

In an affidavit filed with Mr. Ramirez’s lawsuit, the Rev. Moore cited the miraculous healing Jesus performed by touching the sick and how He gathered the children in His arms to bless them.

“The power of human touch is more than physical,” he said in an interview. “It’s the way God created us.”

Mr. Ramirez was convicted of stabbing to death a Corpus Christi man named Pablo Castro in 2004. Drunk and tall, Mr. Ramirez was driving with two friends in search of people to steal when they reached Mr. Castro who was taking out the trash at a convenience store where he worked. Mr. Ramirez stabbed him 29 times. Prosecutors described the attack as a robbery that fetched $ 1.25.

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

Mr. Ramirez assumes responsibility for the crime, which he describes as “hateful 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 it didn’t end up in the death row,” he reflected. “They didn’t end up becoming murderers.”

Mr. Ramirez has studied various religions during his imprisonment, from Catholicism to Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He met the Rev. Baptist Moore through two longtime church members who had visited a prison ministry; Mr. Ramirez considers the sisters his godmothers. Some aspects of Jewish beliefs also resonated with him, and he is now considered a messianic Jew, who believes that Jesus is the Messiah.

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

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

But Judge Brett Kavanaugh offered the state a concordant way out. Texas had two options, he wrote. He could provide a Buddhist chaplain to Mr. Murphy or he could deny access to the execution chamber to all religious advisers, including Christians and Muslims. Texas welcomed him at the suggestion, relegating all spiritual counselors to an observation room adjacent to the chamber.

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

For prisoner advocates, the role of a spiritual counselor at the time of death is profound.

“Defend the dignity of the human being, that everyone is worth more than the worst he has ever done,” said Sister Helen Prejean, an activist against the death penalty who has served as a spiritual advisor to six prisoners in her execution days.

In the last moments of life, he said, what he can offer is his presence. “In the end, it’s‘ Look at my face, ’” he said. “Everyone in this room is there to kill them.”

This presence also generates a moral obligation, Sister Helen said. Unlike state-employed prison chaplains, external spiritual counselors can be an “independent voice” describing what they see in the chamber. “It is secrecy, distance and separation that have allowed the death penalty to continue throughout this time,” he said.

In its response to Mr. Ramirez’s demand, the state states that strict restrictions on the execution chamber are a matter of security and that Mr. Ramirez’s request opens the door to more and more religious demands. heavy.

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

Mr. Ramirez’s lawyer, Seth Kretzer, dismissed that argument. “You are in the safest facility in the entire prison system,” he said.

Mr. Ramirez’s explanation contrasts law and order against compassion and respect for individual faith. These contradictory impulses 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’s mercy versus justice, what choice?” He said. “This is a perfect test case.”

For Mr. Ramirez, it is difficult to see denial as anything less than bad. “What will happen? I’ll have a real spiritual moment at the time of death and you don’t want me to have it?” He said. “Do you also want to avoid this from me?”

In a poem he wrote in 2018, he reflected on his deep loneliness in prison:

Comfort me like a hug
while I wait for the last trailer.
From this loop around my neck
will you notice when I cry?

For now, wait for its execution in just over a week, or a last-minute acknowledgment. He is ready to die, he said. “I really want to get out of hell,” he said. “I know where I’m going anyway. I know what I believe in. ”