Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, Texas has exercised the law with singularly gusto. Its 572 executions account for more than one-third of the nation’s total.
Aside from executing the most prisoners, Texas does it with the least regard for human dignity, compassion, and constitutional standards.
When the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of prisoners with mental disabilities in 2002, Texas responded by killing two death row prisoners — Marvin Wilson and Robert Ladd — with IQ’s below 70.
Now, another clash between Texas and the U.S. Constitution shows — again — how Texas stands alone, even among death penalty states.
On Sept. 8, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the execution of John Henry Ramirez, 37, after Texas refused to allow a pastor to lay hands on Ramirez and pray during the lethal injection. Justices will hear arguments Nov. 1, on whether Texas violated Ramirez’s First Amendment right to freely exercise his religion.
The pending U.S. Supreme Court decision could delay most, or all, of the five Texas executions scheduled for the rest of the year.
Texas prison officials argue that a pastor touching the dying prisoner while praying would be disruptive and a security risk.
Disruptive to whom or what? The security argument is equally ludicrous, assuming an unarmed pastor, thoroughly vetted by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, would threaten a secure prison with a platoon of corrections officers.
In truth, the demands for security and order by the Texas prison system are insatiable. Two years ago, Texas banned clergy outright from the execution chamber. Under fire, the state reversed that controversial decision this year.
Ramirez was convicted of murdering a Corpus Christi convenience store worker in 2004, during a drug-related robbery that yielded $1.25. He elicits little public sympathy.
This case, however, isn’t about Ramirez. It’s about safeguarding constitutional rights for everyone, and the government’s duty to act in a minimally civilized manner.
Despite the reprieve, Ramirez will eventually die on a gurney in the death chamber, after a lethal load of pentobarbital courses through his veins.
Nor will a more dignified death for Ramirez erase the myriad of practical problems with capital punishment: exorbitant legal expenses, unjust racial and geographic disparities, failure to deter violent crime, and the risks of executing the innocent, to name a few.
Still, allowing him a final prayer or blessing, comforted by the touch of a human hand, as he prepares to meet his maker, is not unreasonable. Texas should permit it, however the Supreme Court rules on the constitutional question.
The actions of Texas prison officials, whether callously indifferent or frightfully cruel, are governed by an appalling premise: The state need not recognize the humanity of death row prisoners, or even their right to redemption.
Texas may be the nation’s most barbaric executioner, but that should relieve none of the other 26 states with death penalty laws, including Pennsylvania. The excesses of the Lone Star state lay bare the perverse logic of capital punishment everywhere it exists.