The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a Texas case involving the religious rights afforded to death row inmates, Reuters reported.
In a shocking development, some conservatives on the bench — including Justice Clarence Thomas — appeared to question the sincerity of the convicted murderer at the center of the case.
Oral arguments reveal clues
Despite his record as a staunch defender of religious liberty, Thomas seemed to suggest that John Henry Ramirez’s request for a pastor’s presence during his impending execution might be nothing more than an effort to delay the inevitable.
Other conservative justices signaled that they might also rule against the inmate’s request, particularly out of concern that it might lead to future litigation if granted.
On the other hand, liberal justices generally seemed more inclined to side with Ramirez, who is sentenced to die by lethal injection.
The court heard on Tuesday from both sides of the dispute. While Ramirez is pushing for the right to have a minister present in the execution chamber to lay hands on him and pray out loud, Texas law only allows clergy members to witness from an adjoining room.
Representatives for the inmate claim that the state law imposes an undue burden on his free exercise of religion.
“Gaming the system”
For his part, Thomas appeared to express his skepticism regarding Ramirez’s sincerity and motivation. The justice went so far as to raise the possibility that the condemned prisoner was “gaming the system” in order to aver to delay his imminent execution, noting that he had “changed his request a number of times.”
Attorney Seth Kretzer, however, insisted that the inmate has always “consistently stated” his religious beliefs and that they were indeed “sincere.”
As for the crime that landed Ramirez on death row, he was convicted of the violent stabbing death of a convenience store clerk during a 2004 robbery in Corpus Christi, Texas. He reportedly stabbed Pablo Castro 29 times and made off with a mere $1.25.
He has been on death row since he was sentenced and reportedly joined the Second Baptist Church of Corpus Christi in absentia. Pastor Dana Moore, whose presence Ramirez has requested during his execution, has reportedly visited him in jail on multiple occasions.
The Supreme Court placed a hold on the planned execution in September pending a conclusion to the convict’s petition for relief, which is not expected until well into next year.