Days after setting an execution date, a Texas prosecutor reverses course
By Ruth Graham
When a judge in South Texas signed an order this past week setting an execution date of Oct. 5 for John Henry Ramirez, it seemed like the end of the road.
Ramirez was convicted in 2008 of the murder of a convenience store worker, a crime he has acknowledged 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 asked to have his Baptist pastor pray out loud 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 path for his execution to proceed as long as the state of Texas complied with his request.
But in a surprise turn of events last Thursday, District Attorney Mark Gonzalez of Nueces County filed a motion withdrawing the death warrant for Ramirez, citing his “firm belief that the death penalty is unethical and should not be imposed on Mr. Ramirez or any other person.” His own office had requested the execution date just days earlier, but Gonzalez, a Democrat, wrote in his motion that an employee in his office had done so without consulting him.
In a broadcast from his office on Facebook Live Thursday afternoon, Gonzalez, whose district includes Corpus Christi, where the crime occurred, explained his decision.
“For a while now, I’ve said that I don’t believe in the death penalty,” he said. “My office is not going to seek the death penalty anymore.” He said he would be a hypocrite if he advanced Ramirez’s execution even as he instructs his office not to pursue the death penalty in new cases. Gonzalez and his office did not respond to requests for comment.
The motion by Gonzalez does not address the merits of Ramirez’s conviction or his religious liberty case. Whether it is approved is at the discretion of Judge Bobby Galvan, who set Ramirez’s execution date and presided over his original jury sentencing.
Gonzalez’s term ends in 2024, and any district attorney who succeeds him in office would have the option of reinstating the death warrant.
Ramirez was convicted of repeatedly stabbing Pablo Castro in a 2004 robbery that prosecutors said netted him $1.25. He evaded law enforcement for three years, during which he fled to Mexico and started a family. His guilt is not in question; Ramirez has called his crime a “heinous murder.”
Reached Friday afternoon, one of Castro’s sons, Fernando, called the district attorney’s move “outrageous.” He was 11 when his father was murdered and strongly supports the execution. “I’d like to talk to this guy face to face and give him a piece of my mind,” he said of Gonzalez.
Fernando Castro, who lives in Florida, described the expense, stress and emotional upheaval of traveling to Texas several times in recent years as execution dates were set and then rescinded.
Ramirez’s lawyer, Seth Kretzer, said that he was pleased by the decision and that it came out of the blue. Given that Gonzalez’s office had issued three previous death warrants on Ramirez before the one this past week, Kretzer said he was mystified by what had changed.
“Once an office has made a decision to do one course of action, usually they don’t undo it helter-skelter,” he said.
District attorneys generally have the authority to decide whether to pursue the death penalty in states that allow it. In some cases, prosecutors have attempted to revoke death sentences, although that usually involves doubts about the guilt of the convicted person, allegations of misconduct in the case or concerns about mental health.
Gonzalez, who has described himself as a “Mexican biker lawyer covered in tattoos,” is part of a wave of progressive prosecutors who represent a shift away from an aggressively punitive approach to justice.
Gonzalez was elected in 2016, defeating a fellow Democrat in a long-shot primary. His views on the death penalty were muddled during the race, and several years into his tenure, he was still publicly conflicted on the issue, frustrating some advocates when he deferred to a jury on the question of whether to seek the death penalty in another high-profile murder case.
But his opinions about capital punishment have been evolving. Early last year, he was one of almost 100 elected local prosecutors, attorneys general and other criminal justice leaders who signed a letter to the Biden administration urging it to end the death penalty in the United States. Attorney General Merrick Garland imposed a moratorium on federal executions last summer.
In his Facebook Live broadcast, Gonzalez explained his shifting approach.
“I have to deal with my own growth and my own rationale and thinking and logic,” he said, apologizing to anyone upset by the decision. “I did this because I thought this 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 effect on people “of color, low economic status or even low intellect.”
In prison, Ramirez got to know Dana Moore, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi. Ramirez became a member of the church, and Moore visits him regularly to pray and talk. In August, Ramirez filed a federal lawsuit against prison officials for denying his request to have Moore pray out loud and lay a hand on him in the execution chamber.
The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in his favor, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority that while a state may limit the activities of spiritual advisers in the execution chamber, it ought not ban them.
Moore said he heard about the reversal Thursday. He was confused, since he had been with Ramirez “feet from the death chamber” in the fall, and they had heard nothing from Gonzalez’s office at the time. Ramirez received a last-minute reprieve from the Supreme Court at that time so it could hear his religious freedom case.
On Friday, the pastor said he was relieved for Ramirez, but he was also thinking about Pablo Castro’s family. “Whatever happens, I pray they find peace,” he said.