John Henry Ramirez spent hours in a jail cell that sits only a few feet from the room where more people are put to death each year than any other in the United States.
Then, hours after his scheduled execution, the death row inmate was shifted into the epicenter of a case that could drastically change the comfort afforded to people sentenced to die in the state that leads the nation in executions.
The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Nov. 1 in a case that questions if the state of Texas violates the Free Exercise Clause and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Ramirez claims that the state has prevented his pastor, Dana Moore, from praying aloud with him and placing hands on him as he dies.
This Supreme Court intervention would be unnecessary if Texas officials had allowed a little humanity in an otherwise inhumane process.
The argument now is expected to trigger an unusual delay in state executions and lead to multiple postponements.
The case draws roots to the scheduled execution of Patrick Murphy. At the time, Texas allowed for state-employed chaplains to be with the inmate inside of the chamber. Either a Christian or Muslim chaplain would normally stand at the feet of the inmate, touch his leg and pray as he passed away. Murphy, a practicing Buddhist, wanted a monk to pray with him inside the chamber as he was put to death. He appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and won a stay.
TDCJ responded by barring all clergy from the death chamber.
However, that ended earlier this year when a change in the agency’s protocol allowed for inmates to select their own spiritual advisor. That advisor was instructed to silently stand in the corner of the room much like a potted plant.
The question before the Supreme Court is simple. Should the state have humanity and allow an inmate to practice their religion up to their death? And where does the right to practice religion end?
“The issue really isn’t about death penalty law,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Eventually all of the prisoners will be executed, unless they have other grounds. This is about rather and to what extent the state is going to be humane. Does it want to carry out executions in a vengeful way, or does it want to extend human decency and behave in a dignified way?”
Texas is one of the last remaining states to execute people. The process should be carried out in the most humane way possible, so long as it doesn’t seriously impact the integrity of the execution process.
Does restricting how someone practices religion change the outcome of the execution process?
Will barring an inmate from practicing their religion fix the wrongs they perpetrated?
If the state insists on clinging to the otherwise inhumane process of executing people convicted of heinous crimes, it should at least ensure the process doesn’t stoop to meet the wrongs it purports to correct. There is a reason this state no longer conducts executions on the public square, by electrocution or within a gas chamber.
We applaud the U.S. Supreme Court for stepping in and we hope that this move will force the state to afford both humanity and compassion in the final moments of life for the people it puts to death.