Supreme Court backs a prisoner who sought his pastor's touch at the time of execution Thursday's ruling was clear, and close to unanimous, with only Justice Clarence Thomas in dissent.

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Supreme Court backs a prisoner who sought his pastor's touch at the time of execution

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that condemned prisoners are entitled to have religious advisers present in the death chamber to pray over them and touch them. The court's decision came in the case of John Henry Ramirez, who was convicted in the brutal murder of Pablo Castro, a father of nine.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The decision was the latest and by far the most definitive in a series of cases that have come to the court dividing the justices and even embarrassing them at times with contradictory rulings that appeared to be more favorable for Christian spiritual advisers than for minority religions. Today's ruling, however, was clear and close to unanimous, with only Justice Clarence Thomas in dissent. Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that when Texas denied a request from the death row inmate to have his Baptist minister present in the death chamber to pray over him and touch him, it likely violated a federal law aimed at protecting the religious rights of people confined to prisons and other institutions.

The chief justice noted pointedly that other states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons allow audible prayer and touching by a spiritual adviser at executions. And he said that if states adopt clear rules, it should be the rare case that requires last-minute resort to the federal courts. Roberts noted that audible prayer at executions has a rich history dating back to the time of the founding of the nation and before and that Texas only in the last few years barred religious advisors from being present to pray over the condemned in the execution chamber.

Even the victim's son, Fernando Castro, told KRIS in Corpus Christi last fall that he had no objection to a minister being present to pray over and touch his father's killer in the execution chamber.

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FERNANDO CASTRO: I personally don't see what the big deal is - just - if that's all it takes.

TOTENBERG: Chief Justice Roberts, addressing the state's current objections, noted that a state may limit the time for audible prayer and may require a spiritual adviser to remove his hands at some point so that there's no interference with the administering of the lethal injection.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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