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Texas judge won’t let prosecutor cancel scheduled execution of John Ramirez

Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez, seen at the 2019 Texas Tribune Festival, filed a motion along with John Ramirez’s defense attorney to withdraw the prisoner’s death warrant.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera
The Texas Tribune
Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez, seen at the 2019 Texas Tribune Festival, filed a motion along with John Ramirez’s defense attorney to withdraw the prisoner’s death warrant.

Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez said he is ethically opposed to the death penalty, but an employee wrongfully requested the execution date against his wishes. Gonzalez sought to cancel the execution two days later.

A Texas state district judge on Tuesday rejected a prosecutor’s request to cancel the scheduled October execution of John Ramirez, whose death last year was halted in part of a yearslong back-and-forth between the Texas prison system and the U.S. Supreme Court over religious rights of condemned prisoners.

Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez sought to have the execution canceled, saying one of his employees wrongfully asked a court to set the date in April, after the nation’s high court directed the state prison system to let the prisoner’s pastor touch and pray over him at his execution. Gonzalez said he is ethically opposed to the death penalty and did not want an execution warrant for Ramirez issued.

Along with Ramirez’s defense attorney, he sought to withdraw the new execution date two days after it was requested.

But in a Zoom hearing Tuesday, state District Judge Bobby Galvan said Gonzalez is “the captain of the ship,” and what his staff does is on him.

“I’ve really thought about this a lot,” Galvan said. “I respect y’all’s opinion on this, but I’m not going to withdraw the warrant.”

Gonzalez argued that, as the county’s elected prosecutor, he has the authority to request the cancellation.

“The main issues in this motion, your honor, are that the only legitimate voice for the state of Texas would be my office,” he said.

After the ruling, Ramirez’s attorney, Seth Kretzer, said it was unprecedented for a judge to deny a motion to withdraw a death warrant that has the support of the prosecution and the defense.

Gonzalez has been district attorney since 2016, and his office previously requested execution dates for Ramirez three times — in 2017, 2020 and 2021. The prosecutor’s office asked to halt the 2020 date because of the pandemic, and the other two were stopped by appeals courts. Gonzalez did not immediately return calls Tuesday.

Ramirez, 37, was sentenced to death in Corpus Christi for the robbery and murder of store clerk Pablo Castro in 2004. Court records state Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times during a robbery spree to get drug money with two women. Castro had $1.25 on him.

A previous execution date for Ramirez was delayed while he contested the prison system's refusal to allow a pastor to touch and pray over him as he was executed. Ultimately, the nation’s high court decided in an 8-1 ruling in March that Texas likely violated Ramirez’s religious liberties when it denied his request.

After Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials said after they would abide by the ruling, the path was clear for Nueces County officials to set a new execution date for Ramirez.

An assistant district attorney filed the paperwork in April, and Galvan set a new date for Oct. 5. But two days later, Gonzalez moved to withdraw the date. He said his employee never checked with him before moving forward with an execution, and it was his “firm belief that the death penalty is unethical and should not be imposed on Mr. Ramirez or any other person” while he was in office.

Execution dates have been scheduled and withdrawn based on local prosecutors’ requests in the past, for things like paperwork errors. In Ramirez’s case, however, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the victim’s family also weighed in.

In a letter to the Nueces County state district court, the chief of the attorney general’s criminal division argued that the district court can’t withdraw a pending execution date because of a prosecutor’s “shifting ethical position.” Several of Castro’s children also submitted a brief to Galvan, asking to allow the execution to proceed because “they have endured delay after delay in seeing justice finally served.”

“I want my father to finally have his justice as well as the peace to finally move on with my life and let this nightmare be over,” Fernando Castro, who was 11 at the time his father was killed, was quoted as saying in one brief.

Kretzer said he and Gonzalez will appeal Galvan’s ruling to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, as the judge seemingly encouraged to get clarification on his role in the process of setting execution dates.

Jolie McCullough develops data interactives and news apps and reports on criminal justice issues for the Texas Tribune. She came to the Tribune in early 2015 from the Albuquerque Journal, where her work as a web designer and developer earned her national recognition. She was at the Journal for four years and specialized in interactive maps and data-driven special projects. She is a graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; while there, she interned as a reporter and online producer at the Arizona Republic and served as the web editor of the student-run newspaper, the State Press.