Alabama executes Muslim inmate who sued to have imam present

The state refused to allow the inmate's imam to be in the death chamber.

February 8, 2019, 10:21 AM

A Muslim inmate in Alabama who sued the state for not allowing his imam by his side at his death was executed Thursday night.

The United States Supreme Court voted Thursday to lift a stay for 42-year-old Domineque Ray, allowing the Alabama Department of Corrections to proceed with his execution that evening. Ray was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1995 rape and murder of 15-year-old Tiffany Harville in Selma, Alabama.

"Due to the nature of his crime, the decision of a jury to condemn him to death and because our legal system has worked as designed, Mr. Ray's sentence was carried out," Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement Thursday night. "Courts at every level have upheld Mr. Ray's conviction for his senseless act. Accordingly, the laws of this state have been carried out. It is my prayer that, with tonight's events, the Miss Harville's family can finally have closure."

Ray had been held at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, since he was convicted and sentenced in 1999. He'd been a devout Muslim since at least 2006 and met regularly with his imam, who has provided religious ministry to Muslim inmates like Ray since 2015, according to court documents.

On Jan. 23, two weeks before his scheduled execution, Ray met with the prison warden who, apparently for the first time, explained the practices and policies that the Alabama Department of Corrections adheres to during executions. Among other things, the warden told Ray that a Christian chaplain employed by the department would be in the death chamber as a lethal cocktail of drugs is administered. The inmate's designated witnesses, along with any spiritual adviser other than the prison chaplain, may be seated in a witness room, separated from the execution chamber by a large window, according to court documents.

Ray asked if he could bring in his imam in place of the prison chaplain, but was told his request couldn't be honored due to the department's policy. Ray and his attorneys filed a civil rights complaint and an emergency motion for stay of execution on Jan. 28, claiming the policy violated his constitutional rights.

The Alabama Department of Corrections agreed to exclude the prison chaplain from the death chamber, and on Feb. 1 a district judge denied Ray's initial request for a stay of execution. The judge wrote that Ray waited "until the eleventh hour" to make his legal claim, it's a matter of safety and security, and Ray's imam, who is not a department of corrections employee, is "untrained, inexperienced and outside the state's control."

The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on Wednesday overturned the denial and granted an indefinite stay for the death row inmate, one day before his scheduled execution.

"The central constitutional problem here is that the state has regularly placed a Christian cleric in the execution room to minister to the needs of Christian inmates, but has refused to provide the same benefit to a devout Muslim and all other non-Christians," a panel of three district judges wrote in their decision Wednesday.

The judges wrote that it was "exceedingly loath to substitute our judgment on prison procedures" but that "it looks substantially likely to us that Alabama has run afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."

"What is central to Establishment Clause jurisprudence is the fundamental principle that at a minimum neither the states nor the federal government may pass laws or adopt policies that aid one religion or prefer one religion over another," the judges wrote. "And that, it appears to us, is what the Alabama Department of Corrections has done here."

But the nation's highest court voted to vacate the stay in a 5-4 decision Thursday evening, citing the last-minute nature of Ray's request.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenting members of the court, described the decision as "profoundly wrong."

"Under [Albama's] policy, a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites," Kagan wrote. "But if an inmate practices a different religion -- whether Islam, Judaism or any other -- he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality."