Death of a Sinner

A Texas prisoner fought for the right to have his pastor pray over him and lay hands on him during his execution. Now his pastor reflects.

A photograph of a bearded man behind prison glass and surrounded by black phone receivers; his fingertips touch the window
The Texas death-row inmate John Henry Ramirez at a prison in Livingston, August 25, 2021 (Matthew Busch / The New York Tim​es / Redux)

Pablo Castro, father of nine and convenience-store worker of 14 years in Corpus Christi, Texas, was beaten and stabbed to death for $1.25 on the night of July 14, 2004. His killer was John Henry Ramirez, a 20-year-old ex-Marine who had begun using drugs at 12 and was, by the time he happened to spot Castro taking out the garbage that night, at the tail end of a multiday alcohol, Xanax, and cocaine binge that he was fighting desperately to prolong.

After he murdered Castro, Ramirez fled to Mexico, where he evaded the law for a few years until agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation captured him near Brownsville, Texas, along the U.S. border. His two female accomplices, who had assisted Ramirez in two other double robberies the same evening Ramirez murdered Castro, were each arrested the night of the killing and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for their roles in the crime spree. The state sought the death penalty in Ramirez’s case, and thus began a years-long process of Ramirez countering Texas’s efforts to end his life while expressing serious doubts as to whether he deserved to live at all. At his 2008 trial, for instance, after his own father took the stand in his defense, Ramirez asked that his attorneys withdraw all additional mitigation witnesses, further requesting that they read the jury the following verse from Psalm 51:3: “For I acknowledge my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” The jury sentenced him to death unanimously.

In the years that followed, Ramirez’s sin was indeed ever before him, recapitulated in court papers and media flares when his legal appeals, at times, succeeded. What he had done had permanently altered a number of lives, his included, and the nature of his sentence painted the balance of his years in shades of guilt and shame. If redemption were available to a man so soundly convicted of his crime, it would have to occur within the confines of his remaining days and without the promise of much ameliorative effect upon his conditions. He would be forced, in other words, to face his sins for honest reasons or to evade them until the bitter end—a dilemma in which few of us would demonstrate much moral courage, and one we spend most of our lives suspending in any case. For Ramirez, there was nowhere to hide.

In 2011, news reports show, Ramirez briefly considered waiving his appeals and hastening his execution. He wrote a letter to Judge Bobby Galvan of Texas’s Ninety-Fourth District Court insisting that his remaining legal efforts be suspended so that “justice will be served for the family and friends of Pablo Castro in a speedy fashion … they’ve waited long enough!” In conversations with a prison psychologist, Ramirez said that he would have been willing to carry on with his appeals if he had “support,” or “[someone] to show me you care,” but that he had neither and, despite his faith in God, he didn’t expect any. “I found God a long time ago but I’m not gonna turn holy roller since I ruined my life,” he told the psychologist. “God ain’t gonna save me.”

But before Ramirez could appear for a hearing in Galvan’s court, he learned of a paternal half sister with whom he struck up a relationship, as though the Lord in all his vengeance couldn’t resist such a nakedly desperate plea for love. Ramirez reconsidered his desire to end what he had described as his “trash life.” His appeals continued until 2017, when his first execution date arrived—“I wouldn’t want to ask them to forgive me,” Ramirez said of Castro’s family at the time. “I just want to ask them to know that I'm sorry”—and passed, thanks to a stay from a federal district court.

Once that litigation was exhausted, Texas set a new execution date for Ramirez, in September 2020. But Ramirez sued in August of that year, arguing that the state’s ban on clergy other than staff chaplains employed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in the execution chamber violated his religious rights. Specifically, he requested that Pastor Dana Moore of Corpus Christi’s Second Baptist Church, whom Ramirez had met through the pastor’s prison ministry in 2017, be permitted to be in the room with him at the time of his death. After some grudging back-and-forth and other delays, the state provided for vetted outside clergy to join prisoners during their execution. But Ramirez, who had found himself transformed by Moore’s ministry, gently amended his complaint: He wanted Moore to be able to pray aloud, while touching him.

That turned out to be more than Texas could countenance, and Ramirez’s pressing of the matter eventually put his case before the Supreme Court of the United States—on the eve of another scheduled execution date, this time in September 2021. Castro’s family was distraught, incensed. "Honestly, if he wants a priest to bless him before he's sent off, by all means, go ahead. That doesn't affect me one bit. What affects me is why this process continues to get delayed time and time again,” Aaron Castro, one of Pablo’s sons, told local media after the Court issued a last-minute stay. “You always think this is going to be the year, this is the time, there won’t be another stay of execution, there won’t be another delay. He’s a disgusting human being … Stop crying, stop trying to get around the situation. There’s no way out. You need to be executed.”

The state of Texas, ineluctable and steady, caught up with Ramirez roughly a year hence, on Wednesday, October 5. Though not without further fight: In April of this year, Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez filed a motion to withdraw a death warrant another attorney in his office had requested for Ramirez despite the office’s policy against such requests, and though Texas privileges the role of local district attorneys in scheduling executions for prisoners, no one seemed especially surprised when the state’s courts rebuffed Gonzalez’s efforts to save the man. Publicly, it was a shock and an outrage that Texas had rejected a unified attempt on behalf of the prosecution and defense to withdraw the warrant; privately, there was very little likelihood it was going to turn out any other way. And so a little less than two weeks ago, when the state of Texas brought Ramirez into the execution chamber, Moore was there, prepared to deliver the religious rights, and rites, Ramirez had won before the courts.

Ramirez, who lived in certain respects a hard and unforgiving life, took a hard and unforgiving view of himself. He never attested to a dramatic conversion on the inside, just a spiritual transformation that put him back in the mind of following Christ. “There are a lot of people that believe there’s a God and just don’t live right,” Ramirez told a reporter, with respect to his past, in 2021. “I just wasn’t obeying, I wasn’t trying to be good.” Once Ramirez’s faith reawakened, he began to rely on Moore’s spiritual guidance as his inevitable execution date drew nearer and nearer.

I spoke with Moore last week, after the execution. He sounded drained. He said Ramirez never really forgave himself for Castro’s murder. “I'd say about three or four months ago, John was even toying with the idea of not having me in there or anybody on his side, and just let that be all about Pablo Castro's family,” Moore told me. “John was genuinely remorseful. It was almost to the point where it was like he didn't want us in there because of penance, and just let it be about their family and just whatever they might need to get peace in their lives,” Moore added.

Still, Ramirez reflected in his last moments on his inability to deliver comfort or restitution to Castro’s family in any other way. “I just want to say to the family of Pablo Castro, I appreciate everything that y'all did to try and communicate with me through the victim’s advocacy program,” he offered during his final words. “I tried to reply back, but there is nothing that I could have said or done that would have helped you.”

It was as if he were morally inarticulate, but not insensate: Ramirez could hear Castro’s family, but couldn’t find the right words for them; could feel the love of God, but couldn’t always reflect it, either in his dealings with others or in his attitude toward himself.

Moore laid his hand on Ramirez’s chest and “prayed [to God] for John to feel his presence, for John to feel his peace and for everybody there to feel his peace,” Moore told me, “because, John first, but it’s still, everybody else there. It’s impacting their lives, and affecting them.” John couldn’t much react to his prayer, Moore said, which concluded with Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Nor did the others in the execution chamber. Moore stood waiting by Ramirez’s side, with his hand resting on him, as the man laid before him and died. “I was just praying for God’s presence to be with John as he took him home, as he was going to be with Jesus. Just bring that comfort.”

Aaron Castro released a statement after Ramirez’s death. He quoted Micah 7:18—“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy”—and hailed a new era of healing for his family: “Peace and Love and justice for Pablo G. Castro may his name not be forgotten, and may God have mercy in J.H.R. for it is not up to us. He is receiving his true judgment with our Lord and Savior. The Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end. A Life taken away is not to be celebrated but closure can definitely take place.”

Micah asks a rational question: What should we make of this peculiar God of this peculiar faith, who rushes to forgive offenses and relieve debts, even if it means sending his emissaries out to where the graver stock of sins are stored, in prisons and penal institutions, even execution chambers? I asked Moore how God saw Ramirez.

“God sees John as he created him,” Moore said, not as the sum of all the things he had done. The view of Ramirez from God’s eyes, or from Moore’s, must seem very strange relative to the assessment the state of Texas made of the man on the day he was sentenced, and held until the night he died. May all our enemies be judged by Texas, and we ourselves by God or Dana Moore.