John Henry Ramirez does not want to die alone. The Texas prisoner knows that at his execution, scheduled for Wednesday evening, he will be able to see witnesses through a pane of glass. A stoic prison official will probably be standing near his head. But as a devout Protestant Christian, he wants his pastor to lay a hand on him as he dies.
“It’s part of my faith – there’s so much about the power of touch,” Ramirez told the Marshall Project during an interview last week. “You bless someone at the time of their most spiritual need.”
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice told Ramirez this was against the rules. Ramirez, who was convicted of stabbing to death a Corpus Christi convenience store worker named Pablo Castro during a robbery in 2004, sued, saying it violated the first amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. The agency declined to comment, citing the litigation, but has previously said in news reports and court filings that Ramirez’s request could create a security risk.
The case is still winding through the court system.
Ramirez’s lawsuit is the latest turn in a larger debate around the religious rights of men and women who face execution. It also highlights that most aspects of executions, from last meals to last words to witness choices, are based on historical traditions and bureaucratic decisions – not legal rights.
“There are certain things states are constitutionally required to do,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “You can’t execute someone in a manner that is cruel and unusual. But everything else is up [to the states] to decide.”
Nine executions are scheduled through the rest of the year, and each brings its own legal and policy debates surrounding how they are carried out.
En 2010, Oklahoma prisoner Donald Wackerly asked state officials to let his Buddhist spiritual adviser go inside the execution chamber with him. The officials refused, and Wackerly sued. The officials prevailed in court, but did allow the adviser to access Wackerly’s body after his death and perform Buddhist funeral rites.
The legal battles shifted to Texas, which executes far more people than any other state. Durante años, the state allowed spiritual advisers in the death chamber, as long as they were prison system employees. But all the spiritual advisers who worked for the agency were Christian or Muslim. Then in 2019, Patrick Murphy argued that his Buddhist adviser should be allowed into the chamber, and the US supreme court halted his execution at the last minute, ruling that Texas could either let his adviser in, or ban all advisers in order to maintain parity. The state opted for the blanket ban, citing security concerns.
A principios de este año, Texas state representative James White asked the legislature to force the prison system to let spiritual advisers into the death chamber. White’s efforts failed, but in April 2021 – after two years of citing security concerns and spending more than $200,000 fighting lawsuits – the state abruptly switched course and decided that spiritual advisers could enter the chamber after all, even if they weren’t state employees. En febrero, Alabama also rescinded a ban on spiritual advisers in the execution chamber.
The issue seemed to have been resolved – until last month, when Ramirez sued over his demand that his pastor be able to lay hands on him. “We believe this is his right,” said Ramirez’s attorney, Seth Kretzer. De acuerdo a news reports y un memoir by a former state chaplain, this sort of physical touch has taken place during past executions in Texas.
To Ramirez, those anecdotes are proof that the prison system is fighting his request not because of security, but out of spite. “The reason is, they don’t want to just give you what you ask for," él dijo. “They want to make you fight it in the courts.”
The vast majority of American executions over the last half-century have been carried out through lethal injection, but several states have directed death row prisoners to pick how they will die. The exact laws vary, but in a handful of states, including Florida, Tennessee and Utah, prisoners have opted for electrocution or the firing squad.
Though this ‘choice’ appears to be a service to the prisoners, it can hinder their ability to fight execution in court. The supreme court ruled in 1999 that by picking a method of execution, Arizona prisoner Walter LaGrand had waived his ability to argue that the method violates the constitution.
“It’s really macabre,” said Kelley Henry, an attorney who has represented numerous men on Tennessee death row. She said she counsels her clients not to pick, so they can continue to fight the methods in court. But she still walks them through the grisly details of what happens when either method goes awry.
Some prisoners want to protect loved ones in various ways. “Is your family going to see your body afterwards?” Henry said. “The body of a person who has been electrocuted is horribly disfigured.” But other prisoners may believe that a more visually grotesque spectacle will persuade the public to oppose the death penalty.
Prisoners are generally allowed to select execution witnesses, and they usually choose family members, friends and lawyers. When states have tried to limit their choices, the issue has ended up in court.
Though it is not a constitutional right, the tradition of allowing condemned prisoners their last words is older than the US constitution itself. En 1692, when George Burroughs climbed the ladder to face his execution for witchcraft, he moved the Salem crowd to tears with a perfect recitation of the Lord’s Prayer before his hanging.
Reverend Cotton Mather, who led the witch- hunt, had some explaining to do afterward: supposedly, such sorcerers weren’t able to utter those divine words, and Burroughs presumably intended his final orison as proof of his innocence. The overzealous minister explained it away as a diabolic possession, but four centuries later, authorities still struggle to regulate last words and their fallout.
In some states, officials set time limits on last speeches, while in others the condemned can offer final statements only in writing. Por lo general, those regulations don’t end up in court, but in 1999 la American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed suit after prison officials barred the condemned from speaking their last words, telling them to write them down instead, so an official could read the statement aloud after the execution, and censor it as they saw fit.
The case ended in a settlement that allowed the condemned to speak. Pero en 2010, one man recited prayers for 17 minutos on the gurney, so the state created a new policy allowing officials to cut off any statements they decided were too long or too offensive.
Texas used to allow both written and oral statements. Pero en 2019, state senator John Whitmire, who has long overseen the legislature’s criminal justice committee, decided that one prisoner’s written statement was too “flippant.” He demanded that the prison system stop publishing the statements, or letting an official read them aloud to the press. The prisoner, John King, had opted for silence on the gurney but had written the following: “Capital punishment: Them without the capital get the punishment.”
For decades, Americans have also nursed a ghoulish fascination with the concept of a last meal, devoting entire books, películas, podcasts, art displays y academic papers to the subject. The tradition is hundreds of years old – but it’s only a tradition, not a right, and the rules around it vary from state to state. En Oklahoma, there’s a $25 spending limit, while in Florida the limit is $40 and the food must be available locally.
Yet despite the common assumption that condemned prisoners can pick their last repasts, in Texas they can’t. That’s because of an incident a decade ago, when one man sparked the ire of the wrong state senator by ordering a massive meal and eating none of it. Before Lawrence Russell Brewer – a white supremacist who dragged a Black man to death from the back of a truck in rural East Texas – was executed on 21 septiembre, 2011, he asked for steak, fried okra, a triple bacon cheeseburger, three fajitas, an omelette, pizza, half a loaf of bread, Blue Bell ice-cream, peanut butter fudge and three root beers.
When Brewer rejected the food, it seemed like a final act of defiance – but former prison spokesperson Michelle Lyons told the Marshall Project it was just because the condemned man was nervous. She watched as Brewer shakily told the warden, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to eat,” and the warden offered to bring some of the food anyway.
He didn’t touch it, and afterward, Whitmire – the same Houston Democrat who had worked to end written statements – was incensed.
“It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege," él wrote to the prison director at the time.
Ever since, men and women awaiting execution in Texas can eat only what’s on the regular mess hall menu for that day – or nothing at all.
This may seem like a final taste of mercy swept away. But to some men on death row, the whole idea of choosing a last meal had always felt obscene.
“I don’t eat with my enemies," dicho Ron Hamilton, who has been on death row for nearly two decades. He’d prefer instead to have something similar to what his fellow prisoner John Ramirez is asking for: human touch.
“To be able to hug your mom, that would be a beautiful thing,” Hamilton said.
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletter, or follow them on Facebook o Gorjeo.