DALLAS — When a South Texas judge signed an order last week setting an Oct. 5 execution date for John Henry Ramirez, it seemed like the end of the road.
Mr. Ramirez was convicted in 2008 of murdering a convenience store employee, a crime he admitted to committing. He was sentenced to death and appealed his case to the Supreme Court — not to stop his execution, but to prepare for it. He requested that his Baptist pastor pray aloud and lay hands on him in the execution chamber, a request that brought his case national notoriety. Last month, the court ruled in his favor, clearing the way for his execution as long as the state of Texas complied with his request.
But in a surprise turn of events Thursday, Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez filed a motion to withdraw the death warrant against Mr. Ramirez, citing his “firm belief that the death penalty is contrary to the ethics and should not be imposed on Mr. Ramirez or anyone else. His own office had requested the execution date days earlier, but Mr. Gonzalez, a Democrat, wrote in his motion that someone in his office had done so without consulting him.
In a broadcast from his office on Facebook Live Thursday afternoon, Mr. Gonzalez, whose district includes Corpus Christi, explained his decision.
“For a while I’ve been saying I don’t believe in the death penalty,” he said. “My office will no longer seek the death penalty.” He said he would be a hypocrite if he brought forward Mr Ramirez’s execution even as he instructed his office not to pursue the death penalty in new cases. Mr. Gonzalez and his office did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Gonzalez’s motion does not address the merits of Mr. Ramirez’s conviction or his religious freedom case. Whether it is approved is at the discretion of Judge Bobby Galvan, who set Mr. Ramirez’s execution date and presided over the original sentencing by the jury.
Mr. Gonzalez’s term ends in 2024 and any district attorney who succeeds him would have the ability to reinstate the death warrant.
Mr. Ramirez was found guilty of repeatedly stabbing Pablo Castro during a 2004 robbery that prosecutors say netted him $1.25. He evaded law enforcement for three years, during which time he fled to Mexico and started a family. His guilt is not in question; Mr Ramirez called his crime a “heinous murder”.
Reached on Friday afternoon, one of Mr Castro’s sons, Fernando, called the prosecutor’s decision “scandalous”. He was 11 when his father was murdered and strongly supports the execution. “I would like to talk to this guy face to face and tell him what I think,” he said of Mr. Gonzalez.
Mr Castro, who lives in Florida, has described the expense, stress and emotional upheaval of traveling to Texas on several occasions in recent years as execution dates were set and then cancelled.
Mr Ramirez’s lawyer, Seth Kretzer, said he was happy with the decision and it came out of nowhere. Given that Mr. Gonzalez’s office had issued three previous death warrants for Mr. Ramirez before the one last week, Mr. Kretzer said he was mystified by what had changed.
“Once an office has made the decision to follow an action plan, they don’t usually undo it in a hurry,” he said.
District attorneys generally have the power to decide whether or not to pursue the death penalty in states that allow it. In some cases, prosecutors have attempted to revoke death sentences, although this usually involves doubts about the convicted person’s guilt, allegations of misconduct in the case, or concerns about mental health.
Mr. Gonzalez, who has described himself as a “Mexican biker lawyer covered in tattoos”, is part of a wave of progressive prosecutors moving away from an aggressively punitive approach to justice.
Mr. Gonzalez was elected in 2016, beating a fellow Democrat in a drawn-out primary. His views on the death penalty were muddled during the race, and several years into his term he was still publicly conflicted on the issue, frustrating some defenders when he deferred to a jury on whether to to Seek the Death Penalty in Another High-Profile Murder Case.
But his views on capital punishment have evolved. Early last year, he was one of nearly 100 elected local prosecutors, attorneys general and other criminal justice officials who signed a letter to the Biden administration urging it to end the sentence of death in the United States. US Attorney General Merrick B. Garland imposed a moratorium on federal executions last summer.
On his Facebook Live show, Mr. Gonzalez explained his changing approach.
“I have to deal with my own growth and my own justification, my thinking and my logic,” he said, apologizing to anyone upset by the decision. “I did this because I thought it would be the right thing to do.”
He encouraged viewers to research the pros and cons of the death penalty, arguing that it has a disproportionate impact on people “of color, low economic status or even low intelligence”.
In prison, Mr. Ramirez met Dana Moore, the pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi. Mr. Ramirez has become a member of the church and Mr. Moore visits him regularly to pray and talk. In August, Mr. Ramirez filed a federal lawsuit against prison officials for refusing his request to have Mr. Moore pray aloud and lay hands on him in the execution chamber.
The Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 in his favor, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. writing for the majority that while a state can limit the activities of spiritual advisors in the execution chamber, it should not to prohibit.
Mr Moore said he heard about the reversal on Thursday. He was confused, since he had been with Mr. Ramirez “a few steps from the death chamber” last fall and they had heard nothing from Mr. Gonzalez’s office at that time. the. Mr. Ramirez received a last-minute stay from the Supreme Court at that time so that the court could hear his religious freedom case.
On Friday, the pastor said he was relieved for Mr. Ramirez, but he was also thinking of Mr. Castro’s family. “Whatever happens, I pray that they find peace,” he said.