US Supreme Court grants prisoner stay of execution on religious grounds
U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

A death row prisoner in Texas was granted a last-minute stay of execution by the US Supreme Court Wednesday night after asking that his pastor be allowed to hold him as he is put to death by lethal injection.

"The application for stay of execution of sentence of death ... is granted," the Supreme Court's ruling said. It gave no explanation, a practice which is common in emergency rulings.

John Ramirez, 37, was scheduled to be executed Wednesday evening for stabbing a convenience store clerk to death during a 2004 robbery.

Seth Kretzer, Ramirez' lawyer, petitioned the Supreme Court to halt the execution because the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) will not allow Ramirez' Baptist pastor, the Reverend Dana Moore, to hold him as he is executed or to pray aloud in the execution chamber.

"The first problem is that under the TDCJ's most recent policy, Pastor Moore (may) not lay hands on Ramirez during his death," Kretzer said.

"The second problem is that Pastor Moore may not pray, speak, read Scripture, move his lips, or do anything at all.

"In other words, Pastor Moore is compelled to stand in his little corner of the room like a potted plant."

Ramirez' lawyer said if Moore prays out loud he risks being "ejected from the execution chamber by guards and referred for prosecution."

"Ramirez will be executed without the spiritual advisor guaranteed to him under the Constitution," he said.

The Texas prison authorities allow a spiritual advisor to be in the room during an execution, but they must be quiet and are not allowed to touch a prisoner.

The conservative-leaning Supreme Court rarely intervenes to halt executions, but it has done so in recent cases where prisoners have argued they are being denied access to spiritual advisors.

In the Ramirez case it granted the stay without saying why, and said it will study the merits of the case in October or November.

The court could take the opportunity of Ramirez' case to clarify its position on the religious rights of those sentenced to death.

In 2018 it rejected the request of a stay of execution for Muslim prisoner who asked for an imam to be by his side during his execution.

A few weeks later, following a public outcry, a stay was granted to an inmate who wanted a Buddhist spiritual advisor to accompany him to the execution chamber.

And this year the court ruled that states could not outlaw spiritual advisors to accompany death row inmates entirely.

The Supreme Court said it would revisit Ramirez' case in October or November.

There have been five people executed in the United States this year.