Death row killer wins stay of execution over being denied pastors final touch

A death row inmate who beat a shop worker to death as he robbed him for less than £1 earned a stay of execution – because of a legal row over whether or not his priest could touch him as he died.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided to block John Henry Ramirez's execution just three hours after he could have been executed.

Ramirez was condemned for viciously stabbing 46-year-old Pablo Castro, who worked at a convenience store in Corpus Christi.

The murderer was being held in a tiny holding cell next to the Texas death chamber when he was told of the reprieve by Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark.

Clark said: "He was quiet when I let him know.

"He shook his head and said: 'Thank you very much. God bless you.'"

Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times outside the shop where he worked during a spat of robberies over three days accompanied by two women, NPR reports.

The inmate fled to Mexico after the brutal murder but was found and arrested three and a half years later.

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Seth Kretzer, Ramirez's lawyer, argued that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was grossly violating the death row inmate's First Amendment rights to practise his religion by denying him the touch of his pastor.

The inmate wanted his pastor to touch him and say prayers while he was being executed.

Kretzer called the denial a spiritual "gag order."

"It is hostile toward religion, denying religious exercise at the precise moment it is most needed: when someone is transitioning from this life to the next," Kretzer said in court documents.

Lower appeals courts had previously rejected Ramirez's argument.

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The Texas prison officials say any direct contact with an inmate in the execution chamber could pose a security risk and would go against maintaining an orderly process.

Ramirez's spiritual adviser for the last four years, Dana Moore, said the request to let him touch Ramirez was about treating the inmate "with a certain amount of dignity" and letting him practise his Christian faith.

The inmate and his spiritual adviser say that touching is a symbolic act in which religious leaders put their hands on someone to offer comfort during prayer at the moment of their death.

"John's sentence wasn't death and you can't have any meaningful contact," said Moore.

"He is paying for his crime. I guess the question that would come up, is that not enough?"

Mark Skurka, the lead prosecutor for the trial back in 2008, claimed that there should be limitations on the spiritual adviser due to security risks.

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Now retired from the role, Skurka said: "Pablo Castro didn't get to have somebody praying over him as this guy stabbed him 29 times. Pablo Castro didn't get afforded such niceties and things like to have a clergyman present."

Father-of-nine Castro had been working at the shop he was killed at for over a decade.

"He was a good guy. He would help people out in the neighbourhood. Everybody liked him," Skurka said.

Two women who took part in the robberies remain in prison convicted on lesser charges.

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