Death Row Spiritual Advisors intervene in Supreme Court case


By Carol Zimmermann, Catholic Information Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) – A Supreme Court case on November 9 argues that death row chaplains should have the final say.

Specifically, they should be able to pray aloud with inmates and lay hands on them during executions, something John Ramirez, a death row inmate from Texas, is looking for.

Ramirez, 37, was sentenced to death for the murder of a convenience store clerk in 2004. Just hours before his scheduled execution in early September this year, the Supreme Court arrested him and agreed to hear his case .

He had asked that his Southern Baptist pastor could lay his hands on him and pray aloud with him during his execution. When the Texas prison system rejected this, Ramirez challenged it in court, claiming the state violated his religious beliefs. Lower courts have sided with the state, saying the prison system has a compelling interest in keeping executions safe and orderly.

But the Supreme Court is ready to take a closer look.

It sounds somewhat familiar as the country’s High Court has four times examined spiritual advisers accompanying inmates on executions in recent years with differing opinions.

In February 2019, the court allowed Alabama to execute a Muslim, Domineque Ray, after the state refused Ray to have an imam by his side in the execution chamber, even though the state in l the time had allowed a Christian chaplain in the room. . In its brief order, the court said Ray had sought redress just 10 days before his scheduled execution.

A month later, the Supreme Court banned Texas from executing a Buddhist prisoner, Patrick Murphy, unless he was allowed to have a Buddhist priest by his side. In a notice of agreement with the ruling, Judge Brett Kavanaugh pointed out that state policy allowed Muslim and Christian inmates to have spiritual advisers with them in the execution chamber, but inmates of other denominations could not have their religious leaders with them.

He said if the state wanted to restrict access to the execution chamber, it should exclude all spiritual advisers. And after that order, Texas did just that: it passed a new policy banning all spiritual advisers from the execution chamber.

Catholic inmate Ruben Gutierrez challenged this policy in federal court and last year the Supreme Court suspended his execution and ordered the district court to determine whether allowing an inmate to choose a spiritual advisor would jeopardize the security that would be necessary during an execution.

Last January, after the district court ruled that a spiritual advisor would not in fact affect the safety of an execution, the Supreme Court referred the Gutierrez case to lower courts. Texas then revised its policy to re-allow spiritual counselors in the execution chamber.

In February, the Supreme Court ruled out Alabama from executing Willie Smith III, unless he could have his pastor with him during his execution. In September, the state said Smith could have his pastor with him; he was executed on October 21.

In the case pending before the Supreme Court, Ramirez wants Pastor Dana Moore of the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi to pray aloud and lay his hands on him during his execution, but the state prison has said Moore will not could only remain silent during the execution. room and can’t touch Ramirez.

For the past five years, Moore has been a spiritual advisor to Ramirez who stabbed a convenience store employee to death when he was 20 in a robbery that cost only $ 1.25.

Moore told the Baptist Press this summer that his role “is to be a minister to John” and to comfort him.

Several spiritual advisers from different religious traditions joined an amicus brief in the Ramirez case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The brief cited two nuns and a priest, as well as a Muslim, Buddhist and Unitarian universalist. Sister Helen Prejean, Sister of Saint-Joseph de Médaille, longtime opponent of the death penalty, is part of this memoir, joined by Sister Barbara Battista, Sister of Providence of Sainte-Marie des Bois in Indiana, and Benedictine Father Mark O’Keefe.

These religious leaders said that their presence during executions is “essential to respect for the dignity and rights to religious freedom of the prisoner” and that there is no need to prohibit them from praying aloud or putting down hands on a prisoner during an execution “from a security point of view”.

Sister Prejean served as spiritual advisor for six executions. During the 1997 performance of Joseph O’Dell in Virginia, she stood next to him with her hand on his shoulder as she prayed aloud.

Father O’Keefe was present during the federal government’s execution of Dustin Honken in 2020. Just before the inmate received his lethal injection, the priest performed the last rites, giving Honken Communion, praying aloud with him and anointing him with holy oils.

Sister Battisa was also present at two federal executions last year, for Keith Dwayne Nelson and William Emmett LeCroy, where she spoke to the two men. She prayed aloud with LeCroy, reciting portions of the Rosary of Divine Mercy they had spoken of.

According to the memoir, she continued her audible prayers until he stopped breathing, then blessed his body and, like she did with Nelson, anointed him with oils.

The inmates did not ask for a physical touch, but she said she viewed it as “an act of love and care that provides spiritual comfort in the individual’s return to God and the religious affirmation that the individual – despite all his misdeeds – is loved by God “.

The brief goes on to point out that spiritual counselors saw their role as “not just to remain silent, but to serve the prisoner as he meets death, providing spiritual comfort and a final opportunity for the individual to engage. with his faith at the time of death. most critical moment.

During a recent roundtable discussion on the death penalty, Sister Prejean said that whenever she witnessed the execution of a prisoner, she felt that she was there to show “their dignity. human “, especially after” receiving thousands of signals that they are a waste. “

“I am that face, that person,” recognizing their human dignity, she said.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also filed an amicus brief in this case, joined by the Catholic Conference of Texas. They said that the role of prisoners’ spiritual advisers “is of particularly grave importance at the time of death” and also noted that such councils are “constitutionally protected from government interference”.

The bishops said that the state’s allowing Ramirez’s spiritual assistance “does not make his execution a righteous act” or essentially give him a blessing.

They also underlined their direct opposition to the death penalty itself, claiming that they “have long loathed the practice of state-sanctioned executions of human beings”, which represents a “final and irrevocable termination of the death penalty”. a gift from God ”and indicates that a person“ is beyond redemption.

“It is a judgment that the Catholic Church rejects,” said the bishops. “The state should act with justice in sparing Ramirez’s life. If not, it should allow him to seek God’s mercy at the time of his death.