Don’t Deny Those Being Executed Prayer and Human Touch

Photo by Jackson David on Unsplash

Sr. Helen Prejean writes:

The one time I was allowed inside a death chamber was as the State of Virginia took Joseph O’Dell’s life in 1997. That night, I stood close to the gurney, looking into Joe’s face, with my hand firmly on his shoulder as I prayed. In my prayer I asked God to affirm Joe’s worth as a beloved son possessing a sacred dignity that even the ones killing him could not take from him.

Upholding the God-given dignity of the condemned has been the core reason I, a Catholic nun, have served as a spiritual adviser to seven men on death row. And nothing conveys a greater sense of dignity to a human being — especially one whom society designates as a despicable “untouchable” — than loving, respectful touch.

Joe was on my mind when I got a call from the American Civil Liberties Union to participate in an amicus curiae brief filed with the Supreme Court in support of John Henry Ramirez, a death row inmate in Texas. Mr. Ramirez is requesting that his Baptist pastor, Dana Moore, who has ministered to him for five years, be allowed to lay hands on him and pray audibly as the State of Texas takes his life.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice denied his request, informing Pastor Moore that he would have to stand silently in the death chamber and would not be permitted to touch Mr. Ramirez as officials carried out the execution. But the same day Mr. Ramirez was scheduled to die, the Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments on his request, which snatched him, at least for now, from death in the Huntsville killing chamber. He would have been the 573rd prisoner to be executed by the State of Texas since 1982….

I believe that Mr. Ramirez, while responsible for his crime, is worth more than that singularly worst act of his life. As one who seeks to follow the teachings of Christ, I believe that Mr. Ramirez can be truly remorseful, love others and change his life. The courts, however, have determined the opposite: that Mr. Ramirez’s heinous crime reveals the core of his true nature, which is incapable of personal transformation and, therefore, irredeemable. They demonize him, which is why, perhaps, they feel justified in denying his inalienable human right to live and in depriving him of a trusted pastor to lay hands on him as he dies….

I pray that John Henry Ramirez will not die at the hands of Texas executioners. But if he is killed, I pray that his faith companion, Pastor Moore, will be there with him, laying his hands on him, shoring up his dignity, commending him to God.