Deep within the Huntsville “Walls” Unit sits a building that contains the most active death chamber in the United States.
That chamber sat empty for much of 2020 and 2021.
With five executions scheduled through the rest of 2021, a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision could now delay most or all of them. One death row inmate has already been successful with the argument.
On Wednesday, Ruben Gutierrez was granted a request to vacate his execution date over claims that the state is violating his religious freedom by not letting his spiritual adviser lay hands on him at the time of his lethal injection.
It's the same argument that the U.S. Supreme Court recently found compelling enough to act and halt an execution.
“You could see many executions get delayed, but it depends on what the prisoners request,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which takes no position on capital punishment but has criticized the way states carry out executions. “I would imagine that many will request religious comfort. Similar to when the Supreme Court first heard about the constitutionality of lethal injections, I expect there to be a pause in executions until either the case is resolved or Texas changes its policy.
The case in question, Ramirez vs. Collier, is scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court on Nov. 1 with questions being presented under the Free Exercise Clause and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The court will hear arguments over whether to allow Dana Moore, the pastor of death-row inmate John Henry Ramirez to enter the execution chamber, but forbidding him to lay hands on or praying with his parishioner as he dies, substantially burdens the exercise of Ramirez’s religion.
“Pastor Moore is compelled to stand in his little corner of the room like a potted plant,” Ramirez’s attorney Seth Kretzer said in court filings. “Even though his notarized affidavit explains that laying his hands on a dying body and vocalized prayers during the transformation from life to death are intertwined with the ministrations he seeks to give Ramirez as part of their jointly subscribed system of faith.”
Texas prison officials say direct contact poses a security risk and vocal prayer could be disruptive.
“By design, prisons impede inmates’ freedom to behave as they might wish, which, necessarily limits some of their religious behavior,” the Texas Attorney General’s office said in its initial response. “Certainly, a prison would not impose a substantial burden in declining to transport an inmate to an off-campus service on the day of his execution. Nor would it do so in declining to provide him with religious paraphernalia in the execution chamber.”
The Supreme Court has dealt with the presence of spiritual advisers in the death chamber in recent years but has not made a definitive ruling on the issue.
“There is a clear legal standard. The main question is if Texas is substantially burdening the condemned prisoner’s free exercise of religion,” Dunham said. “At some point, the exercise has to give away for the state to carry out the process. The question is where is that line?
Ramirez was convicted of a 2004 murder at a Corpus Christi convenience store.
HOW WE GOT HERE
The U.S. Supreme Court was criticized after it declined to halt the February 2019 execution of Alabama inmate Domineque Ray over his request to have his Islamic spiritual adviser in the death chamber, but a month later granted a stay for Texas inmate Patrick Murphy — who wanted his Buddhist spiritual adviser in the chamber.
Since then, the Supreme Court has delayed several executions over requests for spiritual advisers.
After the court halted Murphy’s execution due to religious discrimination, the Texas prison system banned all clergy from the death chamber. Texas previously allowed state-employed clergy to accompany inmates, but its prison staff included only Christian and Muslim clerics. The clergy would commonly stand at the foot of the inmate and silently pray while touching their leg.
In April, the Texas prison officials reversed a two-year ban. The new policy allows an inmate’s approved spiritual adviser to be in the chamber, but the two cannot have any contact and vocal prayers are not allowed during the execution.
“The issue really isn’t about death penalty law,” Dunham noted. “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?”