THE execution of a prisoner on death row in Texas can go ahead only if his request for a spiritual adviser to hold his hand while the lethal injection is administered is granted, a judge has ordered.
The prisoner, Ramiro Gonzales, was due to be executed for the murder of 18-year-old Bridget Townsend, the girlfriend of his drug dealer, who disappeared in 2001. She was sexually assaulted and shot by Mr Gonzales after he stole drugs and money. Her body was found only after Mr Gonzales led the authorities to her remains, after receiving two life sentences for kidnapping and raping another woman.
Mr Gonzales, who was 18 at the time of the murder, and is now 39, has asked that his spiritual adviser be allowed in the execution chamber so that she can pray aloud, hold his hand, and place her other hand on his chest as he dies.
He told a court last month that the physical contact was “vitally important” to him. “Receiving God’s touch is a sacred concept in the Bible, and even the lepers were touched by God,” he said.
Texan prison authorities had granted all requests except for allowing his adviser to hold his hand, arguing that this could be a security risk, as it would block the view of authorities and witnesses, and the adviser would be too close to the injection.
Mr Gonzales argued that this violated his religious freedom, and a district judge in Houston has now agreed, ordering prison authorities to grant all his religious-accommodation requests.
A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Amanda Hernandez, said on Wednesday of last week that her agency was “still evaluating the court’s decision”.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this week ordered a late stay of execution in Mr Gonzales’s case, after questions were raised about expert testimony during his original trial.
In a separate legal challenge, Mr Gonzales had asked for a 30-day stay of execution so that he could make an “altruistic” kidney donation. He has a rare blood type, and two possible matches have been found for his kidney. The Board of Pardons and Paroles voted against this particular request on Monday.
Several executions in Texas were delayed last year after legal requests for spiritual advisers to touch and pray.
Last year, the prison system reversed a two-year ban on spiritual advisers in the death chamber, but limited what they are allowed to do. The Supreme Court ruled on 21 March, in the case of another Texan death-row prisoner, and issued guidance to death-penalty states on handling the issue.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that “there is a rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution, dating back well before the founding of our Nation.”
But the Texan prison system opted to review requests from death-row inmates case by case, which resulted in the legal challenge by Mr Gonzales.