HOUSTON – Texas prison officials said Tuesday they don’t plan to formally update their rules after last week’s Supreme Court ruling that indicated states must accommodate the requests of death row inmates who want to have their spiritual advisers pray aloud and touch them during their executions.
But the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said that such requests by inmates will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and unless they present a substantial security risk or are “outrageous,” they would work to grant them.
However, an attorney for death row inmate, John Ramirez, whose case the Supreme Court ruled on last week, said leaving it on a case-by-case basis and not outlining specific rules, won’t resolve this issue.
“By not changing the protocol as to what the pastor can and can’t do, they’re just inviting some future federal judge to stay an execution,” said Seth Kretzer, Ramirez’s attorney.
Ramirez is on death row for killing a Corpus Christi convenience store worker during a 2004 robbery. Ramirez stabbed the man, Pablo Castro, 29 times and robbed him of $1.25.
In an 8-1 opinion issued last week, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that it was possible to accommodate Ramirez’s request to have his pastor touch him and pray out loud during his execution without posing an increased security risk or being a disruption as Texas had argued.
Roberts suggested states “adopt clear rules in advance” on touching inmates and praying aloud to avoid any execution delays and ensure “the prisoner’s interest in religious exercise.”
In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said, “Our execution protocol (actual policy) will not change. When a spiritual adviser is chosen and requests to pray and/or touch the inmate, we will review each on a case-by-case basis.”
When asked for clarification of the statement, an agency spokesman said officials would work to accommodate and grant most reasonable requests.
“Unless there’s just something ridiculously outrageous ... we feel like we can, talking one on one with the spiritual adviser, accommodate them if they need to be touched and pray,” the spokesman said.
The high court’s ruling came after the Texas prison system in April 2021 reversed a two-year ban on spiritual advisers in the death chamber but limited what they can do. Texas instituted the ban after the Supreme Court in 2019 halted the execution of Patrick Murphy, who had argued his religious freedom was being violated because his Buddhist spiritual adviser wasn’t allowed to accompany him. Murphy remains on death row.
The ruling in Murphy’s case came after the court was criticized for declining to halt the 2019 execution of Alabama inmate Domineque Ray over his request to have his Islamic spiritual adviser in the death chamber.
The Texas prison system agency spokesman said officials believe outlining specific rules about touching and praying would lead to more lawsuits and execution delays.
But Kretzer said that by not outlining specific rules on what spiritual advisers can and can’t do, Texas prison officials were not fully considering the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“Their statement sounds to me like they are humming the words but they’re not singing the tune that Chief Justice Roberts gave them last week,” Kretzer said.
Kretzer pointed to a case in Alabama of death row inmate Willie B. Smith III, who was executed in October after an agreement was reached that set specific rules about what Smith’s pastor could do in the death chamber, as an example of how rules related to spiritual advisers can be specific.
“They were able to get this done,” Kretzer said.
Kretzer predicted that unless Texas created specific rules for what spiritual advisers can and can’t do in the death chamber, “we will be right back where we were before the ruling last week: litigation, stays.”
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice “always wants to keep it a little ambiguous so they can keep the enemy on their toes. They always want to keep you guessing,” Kretzer said. “Unfortunately, lawyers and more specifically federal courts don’t like guessing. They like specifics.”
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