SINCE the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, Texas has exercised the law with singular gusto. Its 572 executions account for more than one-third of the nation’s total.
Texas has also carried out those executions with the least regard for human dignity, compassion, and constitutional standards.
When the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, 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.
The latest outrage from Texas occurred this month. 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 remaining executions in Texas scheduled for 2021.
Texas prison officials argue that a pastor touching the dying prisoner while praying could disrupt the proceedings or pose a security risk.
The state already allows the pastor into the execution chamber. The proximity of Ramirez to an unarmed clergyman, thoroughly vetted by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, does not alter the potential for disruption or lapses in security.
In truth, the demands by the Texas prison system for security and order are insatiable, exceeding any reasonable standard.
To be sure, few people will sympathize with Ramirez. He was convicted of murdering a Corpus Christi convenience store clerk in 2004, during a drug-related robbery that yielded $1.25.
This case, however, is not 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 die on a gurney in the death chamber, as a lethal load of pentobarbital courses through his veins.
A more dignified death for Ramirez will not change the outcome. Nor will it erase the myriad of practical problems with capital punishment, such as exorbitant legal expenses, unjust racial and geographic disparities, failure to deter violent crime, and the risk of executing the innocent.
Still, allowing the condemned 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.
Even among death penalty states, Texas stands alone. That should not, however, comfort any of the other 26 states with such laws, including Pennsylvania. The excesses of the Lone Star State reveal the perverse logic of capital punishment, wherever it exists.