Release Date: November 5, 2021
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

Bookmark and Share
Oral argument in Ramirez v. Collier set for Monday, November 8

The U. S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a Texas murderer’s lawsuit that claims the state is violating his rights by refusing to allow a minister to touch him and pray aloud in the execution chamber while he receives a lethal injection.

At issue in Ramirez v. Collier is whether there is a limit to religious accommodations for condemned murderers required by the Constitution and federal statutes. CJLF argues that there should be a limit, and the Court should settle on what that should be. The Foundation also notes that raising this type of claim at the last minute after decades of review on direct appeal and habeas corpus is an abuse of the legal process.

The case involves the conviction and death sentence of John Ramirez for robbery and the murder of Pablo Castro at a convenience store parking lot in Corpus Christi, Texas, on the night of July 19, 2004. Multiple witnesses and DNA evidence convinced a unanimous jury that Ramirez and two female accomplices were involved in the murder, another robbery, and an attempted robbery later that evening. According to the evidence, Ramirez and the women had been using drugs all day and decided to rob someone in order to buy more drugs. The three drove around Corpus Christi looking for someone to rob when they spotted Castro, the night clerk at the Times Market, emptying garbage in the parking lot dumpster. Ramirez attacked Castro, stabbing him 29 times while one of the women went through his pockets finding $1.25. Witnesses at an adjacent car wash saw the attack and ran to Castro’s aid as Ramirez and the women drove off. The witnesses identified the van they were driving and one identified Ramirez as the assailant. A short time later, Ramirez put his knife to the throat of a young mother waiting at the drive-up window of a fast-food restaurant and stole her purse. He and his accomplices then tried to rob another woman at a different fast-food restaurant, but she managed to escape. Both victims identified Ramirez. Police arrested both women after midnight on July 20, 2004. Ramirez fled to Mexico and evaded capture for three years.

Following his conviction in 2008, Ramirez’s claims of trial and sentencing error and ineffective assistance of counsel were reviewed over 12 years by multiple courts. None of his claims were upheld. In March of 2019, the U. S. Supreme Court, in Murphy v. Collier, ruled that the Texas policy of allowing prison-employed chaplins, but not outside clergy, into the execution chamber discriminated against murderers who adhered to different religions. In response, Texas changed its rules to allow clergy from all religions to be in the viewing room, but none in the execution chamber.

Alabama did the same, but an execution there was blocked by a federal appeals court on a claim that it infringed free exercise of religion, and the Supreme Court declined to lift the stay. Texas then changed its rule to allow clergymen in the chamber, but to prevent interference required them to stand three feet away and remain silent.

Last year, after unsuccessfully petitioning the Texas Department of Corrections to change the rule, Ramirez filed a civil lawsuit asking a federal judge to stay his execution, arguing that Texas had failed to accommodate his religious needs. The judge denied the stay, and later a divided panel of the Court of Appeals also refused to grant a stay.

When the Supreme Court agreed to hear Ramirez’s appeal, CJLF joined the case. In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger argues that this case is just the latest example of a convicted murderer who has exhausted state and federal court review of his challenges to his conviction and sentence using a civil lawsuit to raise new claims to delay his execution. The brief notes that religious accommodations involving a clergyman touching a murderer at the moment of execution did not exist through most of the twentieth century. Further, the opportunity to file a civil lawsuit to obstruct a state criminal case was addressed in the Supreme Court’s 1971 landmark decision Younger v. Harris. That decision held that federal court review of such challenges was limited to “unusual circumstances,” such as bad faith or harassment. In order to qualify for review, the murderer must show that the procedure he is challenging will subject him to great and immediate irreparable injury. The absence of clergy holding hands with a murderer did not meet this standard when the methods of execution were hanging, electrocution, or the gas chamber, and it does not apply today when the method of execution is painless euthanasia. CJLF is asking the court to utilize the standard announced in Younger to limit federal court review of last-minute lawsuits such as this one.

“For years, a lack of clear policy regarding civil lawsuits filed after years, sometimes decades, of state and federal court review, has allowed murderers and activist judges to halt executions,” said Scheidegger. “It is time to put limits on this abuse of process and respect the rights of the victims and their families,” he added.

CJLF’s brief is available here:

CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345