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Filed 6:00 a.m.
09.07.2021

From Last Meals to Last Words, What Can Death Row Prisoners Request Before They Die?

As a Texas man sues for his pastor to touch him during his execution, a guide to rights for the condemned.

John Henry Ramirez, who is incarcerated on death row at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, Texas, on Sept. 1, 2021.
John Henry Ramirez, who is incarcerated on death row at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, Texas, on Sept. 1, 2021.

John Henry Ramirez does not want to die alone. The Texas prisoner knows that at his execution, scheduled for Wednesday evening, he will be able to see witnesses through a pane of glass. A stoic prison official will probably be standing near his head. But Ramirez also wants his Baptist pastor to lay a hand on him as he dies.

“It's part of my faith –- there's so much about the power of touch,” Ramirez told The Marshall Project during an interview last week. “You bless someone at the time of their most spiritual need.”

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice told Ramirez this was against the rules. Ramirez, who was convicted of stabbing to death a Corpus Christi convenience store worker named Pablo Castro during a robbery in 2004, sued, saying it violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. The agency declined to comment for this story, citing the litigation, but has previously said in news reports and court filings that Ramirez’s request could create a security risk.

This article was published in partnership with The Guardian.

The case is still winding through the court system. Whatever the outcome, Ramirez’s lawsuit is the latest turn in a larger debate around the religious rights of men and women who face execution. It also highlights a notable fact about the American death penalty: Most aspects of executions, from last meals to last words to witness choices, are based on historical traditions and bureaucratic decisions — not legal rights.

“There are certain things states are constitutionally required to do,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “You can’t execute someone in a manner that is cruel and unusual. But everything else is up [to the states] to decide.”

With nine executions scheduled through the rest of the year, we examined some legal and policy debates surrounding how they are carried out.

Chaplains

The Ramirez case didn’t come out of nowhere. In 2010, Oklahoma prisoner Donald Wackerly asked state officials to let his Buddhist spiritual adviser go inside the execution chamber with him. The officials refused, and Wackerly sued. The officials prevailed in court, but did allow the adviser to access Wackerly’s body after his death and perform Buddhist funeral rites.

The legal battles shifted to Texas, which continues to execute far more people than any other state. For years, the state allowed spiritual advisers in the death chamber, as long as they were prison system employees. But all the spiritual advisers who worked for the agency were Christian or Muslim. Then in 2019, Patrick Murphy argued that his Buddhist adviser should be allowed into the chamber, and the U.S. Supreme Court halted his execution at the last minute, explaining that Texas could either let his adviser in, or ban all advisers in order to maintain parity. The state opted for the blanket ban, citing security concerns.

Earlier this year, Texas state Rep. James White asked the legislature to force the prison system to let spiritual advisers into the death chamber. White’s efforts failed, but in April 2021 — after two years of citing security concerns and spending what records show was more than $200,000 fighting lawsuits — the state abruptly switched course and decided that spiritual advisers could enter the chamber after all, even if they weren’t state employees. In February, Alabama also rescinded a ban on spiritual advisers in the execution chamber.

The issue seemed to have been resolved — until last month, when Ramirez sued over his demand that his pastor be able to lay hands on him. “We believe this is his right,” said Ramirez’s attorney, Seth Kretzer. According to news reports and a memoir by a former state chaplain, this sort of physical touch has taken place during past executions in Texas.

To Ramirez, those anecdotes are proof that the prison system is fighting his request not because of security, but out of spite. “The reason is, they don't want to just give you what you ask for,” he said. “They want to make you fight it in the courts.”

Method

​​The vast majority of American executions over the last half-century have been carried out through lethal injection, but several states have directed death row prisoners to pick how they will die. The exact laws vary, but in a handful of states, including Florida, Tennessee and Utah, prisoners have opted for electrocution or the firing squad.

Though this ‘choice’ appears to be a service to the prisoners, it can hinder their ability to fight execution in court. The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that by picking a method of execution, Arizona prisoner Walter LaGrand had waived his ability to argue that the method violates the Constitution.

“It’s really macabre,” said Kelley Henry, an attorney who has represented numerous men on Tennessee death row, and said she counsels them not to pick, so they can continue to fight the methods in court. But she still walks them through the grisly details of what happens when either method goes awry.

Some prisoners want to protect loved ones in various ways. “Is your family going to see your body afterwards?” Henry said. “The body of a person who has been electrocuted is horribly disfigured.” But other prisoners may believe that a more visually grotesque spectacle will convince the public to oppose the death penalty.

Witnesses

Prisoners are generally allowed to select execution witnesses, and they usually choose family members, friends and lawyers. When states have tried to limit their choices, the issue has ended up in court.

Tennessee only allows a single defense lawyer to witness a client’s execution. In 2018, amid a legal battle over the state’s lethal injection protocol, Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman, facing execution for killing a man who sold him marijuana in 1986, asked the state to let a second lawyer attend. His team argued that if he was visibly suffering from “cruel and unusual punishment,” they might need to ask a court to halt the proceedings. But if only one lawyer was present, he or she would have to choose between continuing to watch and leaving to find a phone. The courts rejected this argument, but prison officials said the single attorney could access a phone from the witness room. (The execution was eventually halted for other reasons.)

In 2014, Missouri tried to bar a man named William Owens from attending the execution of his half-brother Leon Taylor. The two men had been convicted of robbing a gas station together, and Taylor had been sentenced to death for shooting and killing the attendant. Prison officials said Owens could not attend because of security concerns, and because seeing him might upset the victim’s family.

The prisoner’s lawyer argued in court that officials had no legal authority to keep Owens out, and that depriving a man of his chosen witness would “increase the severity of the punishment of death.” A state judge agreed, and Owens was given the green light — but in the end, he declined to be a witness.

Last Words

Though it is not a constitutional right, the tradition of allowing condemned prisoners their last words is older than the U.S. Constitution itself. In 1692, when George Burroughs climbed the ladder to face his execution for witchcraft, he moved the Salem crowd to tears with a perfect recitation of the Lord’s Prayer before his hanging.

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Rev. Cotton Mather, who led the witch hunt, had some explaining to do afterward: Supposedly, such sorcerers weren’t able to utter those divine words, and Burroughs presumably intended his final orison as proof of his innocence. The overzealous minister explained it away as a diabolic possession, but four centuries later, authorities still struggle to regulate last words and their fallout.

In some states, officials set time limits on last speeches, while in others the condemned can only offer final statements in writing. Usually, those regulations don’t end up in court, but in 1999 the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed suit after prison officials barred the condemned from speaking their last words, telling them to write them down instead, so an official could read them aloud after the execution, and censor them as they saw fit.

The case ended in a settlement that allowed the condemned to speak. But in 2010, one man recited prayers for 17 minutes on the gurney, so the state created a new policy allowing officials to cut off any statements they decided were too long or too offensive.

Texas used to allow both written and oral statements. But in 2019, State Sen. John Whitmire, who has long overseen the legislature’s criminal justice committee, decided that one prisoner’s written statement was too “flippant.” He demanded that the prison system stop publishing the statements, or letting an official read them aloud to the press. The prisoner, John King, had opted for silence on the gurney but written the following: “Capital punishment: Them without the capital get the punishment.”

Last Meals

For decades, Americans have nursed a ghoulish fascination with the concept of a last meal, devoting entire books, movies, podcasts, art displays and academic papers to the subject. The tradition is hundreds of years old — but it’s only a tradition, not a right, and the rules around it vary from state to state. In Oklahoma, there’s a $25 spending limit, while in Florida the limit is $40 and the food must be available locally.

Yet despite the common assumption that condemned prisoners can pick their last meals, in Texas they can’t. That’s because of an incident a decade ago, when one man sparked the ire of the wrong state senator by ordering a massive meal and eating none of it. Before Lawrence Russell Brewer — awhite supremacist who dragged a Black man to death from the back of a truck in rural East Texas — was executed on Sept. 21, 2011, he asked for steak, fried okra, a triple bacon cheeseburger, three fajitas, an omelet, pizza, half a loaf of bread, Blue Bell ice cream, peanut butter fudge and three root beers.

When Brewer rejected the food, it seemed like a final act of defiance — but former prison spokeswoman Michelle Lyons told The Marshall Project it was just because the condemned man was nervous. She watched as Brewer shakily told the warden, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to eat,” but the warden offered to bring some of the food anyway.

He didn’t touch it, and afterward, Whitmire — the same Houston Democrat who pushed to end written statements — was incensed.

“It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege,” he wrote to the prison director at the time.

Ever since, men and women awaiting execution in Texas can eat only what’s on the regular mess hall menu for that day — or nothing at all.

This may seem like a final taste of mercy swept away. But to some men on death row, the whole idea of choosing a last meal had always felt obscene.

“I don’t eat with my enemies,” said Ron Hamilton, who has been on death row for nearly two decades. He’d prefer instead to have something similar to what his fellow prisoner John Ramirez is asking for: human touch. “To be able to hug your mom, that would be a beautiful thing,” Hamilton said.

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Keri Blakinger is a staff writer whose work focuses on prisons and jails. She writes the column “Inside Out" with NBC News, and her work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the organization's first formerly incarcerated reporter.

Maurice Chammah is a staff writer whose book, "Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty," won the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Book Award. A former Fulbright and H.F. Guggenheim fellow, he has reported on a range of criminal justice subjects, including jail conditions, sheriffs, wrongful convictions, and art by incarcerated people.