A medium rare rib eye steak, a baked potato with butter and sour cream, an iceberg lettuce salad, garlic bread and lemon meringue pie for dessert. That was the last meal ordered up by serial killer Oscar Ray Bolin Jr. right before the state of Florida executed him.
It is customary in most states for death row inmates to ask for and receive a special last meal. Steak is a favorite request, as is Kentucky Fried Chicken and meat-lover’s pizza. Traditionally, the condemned also gets to choose a few close friends or relatives to be present at the moment they are put to death.
Now, one inmate’s request for a specific witness, denied by the state of Texas, has resulted in a fight that has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case of John Henry Ramirez, 37, raises the question: how far must a state go to accommodate someone who has brutally murdered another?
In 2004, Ramirez fatally stabbed Pablo Castro, a Corpus Christi convenience store clerk, 29 times during a rash of robberies he and two women carried out in their quest for drug money. That robbery netted just $1.25. Ramirez disappeared into Mexico for a few years but was ultimately caught and convicted of murder. He is now incarcerated in Livingston, Texas, and was scheduled to die there earlier this month.
Ramirez was befriended and converted in prison by Baptist minister Dr. Dana Moore. Over the years the two men became spiritually connected. In April 2021, after the state of Texas spent some $200,000 fighting various inmates’ last request lawsuits, and as Ramirez’s death day neared, Texas lifted its yearslong ban on spiritual adviser witnesses. Ramirez’s attorney promptly informed the prison his client wanted Moore to be his in-chamber witness on execution day. The prison agreed.
Then, last month, the attorney upped the ante. He advised the prison his client not only wanted Moore to be in the death room, he also wanted him to be allowed to lay hands on him and pray out loud over his prone body as the lethal injection was administered.
“It’s part of my faith – there’s so much about the power of touch,” Ramirez recently told a reporter. “You bless someone at the time of their most spiritual need.”
The prison put the brakes on that idea, arguing in court that any direct physical contact during an execution would be a security risk and praying out loud could be disruptive. One lower court judge sided with the state when she said she had concerns about whether “Ramirez’s change in position has been asserted to delay his execution.” The inmate and his lawyer maintain the state is acting out of spite and they pushed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court plans a hearing on the issue in October or November.
This is not the first time SCOTUS has ruled on an inmate’s last request for a religious adviser to be with them at the end, and it surely won’t be the last. But the other cases centered on prisons that gave preferential access to Christian ministers over Muslim or Buddhist clerics. In the past the justices have been split on suits that center on religious liberty versus prison security policies. There’s no way to accurately predict how the court might rule this time. In the meantime, Ramirez lives.
At its core the Ramirez case comes down to the amount of compassion the state should show for a person who has committed the ultimate crime – murder – or another capital offense. Does such a person deserve any sort of special treatment as they leave this world? Are we a better society if we grant a convict more empathy than he or she ever afforded others? Or should the biblical “eye for an eye” mantra be followed?
I have spent time inside a Texas death chamber. It is a chilling, sobering place. It seems to me if Moore were to be allowed inside the small room on execution day – even if required to stay still and silent – his very presence would bring solace to his condemned friend. Perhaps that’s all Ramirez deserves. I wonder what my readers think.