On Death Row in Texas, a Last Request: A Prayer and ‘Human Contact’

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Scheduled for execution on Sept. 8, John Henry Ramirez is suing to have his Baptist pastor lay hands on him as he dies.

John Henry Ramirez is scheduled to be executed in September. He wants his Baptist pastor to lay hands on him as he dies. “It would just be comforting,” he said.
Credit...Matthew Busch for The New York Times

Aug. 30, 2021Updated 4:31 p.m. ET

LIVINGSTON, Texas — John Henry Ramirez and Dana Moore both quote the same passage of the Bible when they explain their friendship. “I was sick and you looked after me,” Jesus says in the book of Matthew, describing God ushering righteous people into eternal life. “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Mr. Moore, the pastor of Second Baptist Church in 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 Mr. Ramirez has been on death row for more than a decade. The two men talk about faith and life, speaking through telephone handsets on either side of a thick Plexiglas window in the prison’s visiting room.

Mr. Ramirez, 37, often teases Mr. Moore about his “short and sweet” prayers, and they discuss recent sermons at the church, where Mr. Ramirez became a member a few years ago. Mr. Moore had to bend the rules to accept his application in absentia, but there was no question for him that Mr. Ramirez was qualified.

Now, the men are planning one last 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 hands on him at the moment of his death.

“It would just be comforting,” Mr. Ramirez said in an interview at the prison. He wants Mr. Moore not just to observe as the fatal drug cocktail snakes through an IV line into his arm — “poisoned straight up to death,” as he put it — but to pray out loud, and hold his hand, or touch his shoulder or foot.

On Aug. 10, Mr. Ramirez filed a federal lawsuit against prison officials for denying his request. The suit claims that the state’s refusal to allow Mr. Moore to lay hands on him burdens his free exercise of religion at the exact moment “when most Christians believe they will either ascend to heaven or descend to hell — in other words, when religious instruction and practice is most needed.”

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Credit...Matthew Busch for The New York Times

The two men have never touched; their entire relationship has been conducted through Plexiglas. When they pray, they press their palms together on the window. Mr. Ramirez rarely experiences any kind of physical touch on death row, other than glancing contact with guards when they place handcuffs around his wrists. He greets his visitors with a fist bump on the window, flesh to plastic to flesh. “We have no human contact back here,” he said.

As a Baptist, Mr. Moore does not believe in a formal sacrament that must be performed to exact specifications on the brink of death, like the Catholic practice of administering the last rites. But he said touch is an integral, organic part of his work. When someone comes forward in a church service for a personal prayer, or when he visits a dying person in the hospital, he holds the person’s hand.

In an affidavit submitted with Mr. Ramirez’s lawsuit, Mr. Moore cited the miraculous healing that Jesus is recorded to have performed through touching the sick, and how he gathered children into his arms to bless them.

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

Mr. Ramirez was condemned for stabbing to death a Corpus Christi man named Pablo Castro in 2004. Drunk and high, Mr. Ramirez was driving around with two female friends looking for people to rob when they came upon Mr. Castro 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 netted $1.25.

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

Mr. Ramirez takes responsibility for the crime, which he calls a “heinous murder.” He declined to attribute his actions to his childhood marked by abuse, instability and poverty. “There’s a lot of people that live like that and even worse, and they didn’t end up on death row,” he reflected. “They didn’t end up becoming murderers.”

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Credit...Matthew Busch for The New York Times

Mr. Ramirez has studied a variety of religions during his time in prison, from Catholicism to Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He met Mr. Moore, the Baptist pastor, through two longtime church members who had been visiting through a prison ministry; Mr. Ramirez considers the sisters his godmothers. Aspects of Jewish beliefs also resonated with him, and he now considers himself a Messianic Jew, who believes that Jesus is the Messiah.

But he rejects the stereotype of the jailhouse conversion. He always believed in God, he said, even at his lowest moments. “There are a lot of people that believe there’s a God and just don’t live right,” he said. “I just wasn’t obeying, I wasn’t trying to be good.”

Texas’ approach to spiritual advisers at executions has oscillated over the course of Mr. Ramirez’s time on death row. The state allowed only prison-employed chaplains to be present in the death chamber before 2019. But it employed only Christian and Muslim clerics 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 agreed.

But Justice Brett Kavanaugh offered the state an out in a concurring opinion. Texas had two options, he wrote. It could provide a Buddhist chaplain for Mr. Murphy, or it could decline access to the execution chamber to all religious advisers, including Christians and Muslims. Texas took him up on the suggestion, relegating all spiritual advisers to an observation room adjacent to the chamber.

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

To advocates for prisoners, the role of a spiritual counselor at the moment of death is profound.

“You uphold the dignity of the human being, that everyone is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” said Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty activist who has served as a spiritual adviser to six inmates on their execution days.

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

That presence also generates a moral obligation, Sister Helen said. Unlike state-employed prison chaplains, outside spiritual advisers can be an “independent voice,” describing what they see in the chamber. “It’s the secrecy and the distance and the separation that has allowed the death penalty to go on all this time,” she said.

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Credit...Matthew Busch for The New York Times

In its response to Mr. Ramirez’s suit, the state claims that strict restrictions in the execution chamber are a security matter, and that Mr. Ramirez’s request opens the door to ever-more-burdensome religious requests.

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

Mr. Ramirez’s lawyer, Seth Kretzer, pushed back on that argument. “You’re in the most secure facility in the entire prison system,” he said.

Mr. Ramirez’s plea pits law and order against compassion and respect for individual faith. These contradictory impulses both have a strong influence in Texas, said Kent Ryan Kerley, professor and chair of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas at Arlington. “It’s mercy versus justice, which one do they choose?” he said. “This is a perfect test case.”

For Mr. Ramirez, it is hard to see the denial as anything but spiteful. “What will happen? I’ll have a true spiritual moment at the point of death and you don’t want me to have that?” he said. “You want to keep that from me, too?”

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

Comfort me like a hug
while I await the final tug.
Of this noose around my collar
will you notice when I holler?

For now, he awaits his execution in just over a week, or a last-minute reprieve. He is ready to die, he said. “I really do want to get the hell out of here,” he said. “I know where I’m heading anyways. I know what I believe in.”

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