Muslim prisoner's execution blocked because request for imam was denied

Inmate convicted of rape and murder of teenage girl told only a Christian prison chaplain is allowed in chamber during lethal injection

Julia Jacobs
Thursday 07 February 2019 12:12 GMT
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Dominique Ray, a 42-year-old inmate convicted of murder, is requesting a federal judge order a stay in his execution pending a lawsuit over Alabama's prison chaplain law.
Dominique Ray, a 42-year-old inmate convicted of murder, is requesting a federal judge order a stay in his execution pending a lawsuit over Alabama's prison chaplain law. (Alabama Department of Corrections)

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Louise Thomas

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A federal appeals court in Alabama has delayed the execution of a Muslim inmate who said the prison was violating his religious rights by barring an imam from being present during the lethal injection.

The death row prisoner, Domineque Ray, was scheduled to be executed on Thursday evening for raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl in 1995, according to court documents. He has been imprisoned at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, for nearly 20 years.

In Wednesday’s order, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that Ray, 42, had a “powerful” claim that the prison’s refusal to allow the presence of an imam in the execution chamber violated his constitutional rights.

The panel reversed a District Court decision that refused Ray a stay of execution, maintaining that he had waited too long to bring his legal claim against the prison’s commissioner.

According to court documents, a prison warden explained the policies around death penalty proceedings to Ray on 23 January. At that point, the warden refused his requests to have an imam with him in the execution chamber and to exclude the state-employed chaplain from the room.

“Because he is a Muslim, he is being denied this crucial spiritual assistance in his final moments,” Ray’s defence lawyers, Spencer J Hahn and John Anthony Palombi, wrote in their motion for the stay of execution.

According to Alabama’s Department of Corrections, a Protestant chaplain, Chris Summers, is traditionally present for executions and has witnessed nearly every one in the state since 1997. The chaplain prays with the death row inmate during his or her final minutes if the inmate requests it. If not, he stands to the side.

In court documents, the state’s office of the attorney general has argued that the prison denied Ray’s request in order to maintain the prison’s safety and security. The chaplain is allowed there because he is trained in execution protocol, according to the state’s court filing.

“He is not merely a random clergyman pulled in off the street for executions,” the office wrote.

Because Ray was informed of his execution date in November and was imprisoned in Atmore for nearly two decades, the attorney general’s office said he should have known about the prison’s protocol. This “11th-hour filing smacks of gamesmanship,” the office wrote.

Ray’s lawyers wrote in a court filing that he was unaware of the specific policies around religious figures in the execution chamber until two weeks ago.

The prison eventually agreed to fulfil Ray’s request to exclude the Christian chaplain from the execution chambers, but it would not allow the imam to be present, according to court documents. The imam, however, would be allowed to be with Ray until the moment he enters the execution chamber.

In the appeals court decision, Judge Stanley Marcus wrote that the prison’s willingness to exclude the chaplain did not alleviate the constitutional issue at hand: that the prison is apparently favouring one religious denomination over another.

On Wednesday, the state appealed the stay of execution to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court refuses the state’s appeal, Ray’s case will return to the appeals court, where judges will consider his claim that the prison’s refusal to allow an imam in the execution chamber violates his constitutional rights, Hahn said in an email.

Christine A Freeman, the executive director of the Middle District of Alabama Federal Defender Programme, which is representing Ray, said it was pleased with the appeals court decision to delay the execution and that it planned to respond to the state’s challenge on Thursday morning.

Richard D Anderson, Alabama’s assistant attorney general, did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday evening.

Ray has been a devout Muslim since 2006 and has been meeting for years with Imam Yusef Maisonet, who provides religious ministry to inmates at the Alabama prison. Maisonet said in a phone interview that it was important for him to be present inside the execution chambers to ensure that the last words Ray utters are a “confirmation of his faith.”

Mr Maisonet said he wanted the prison to change its policy so that a Christian, Muslim or Jewish religious leader could be present during an execution.

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“We’re trying to turn a new leaf in how the Department of Corrections executes its inmates,” he said. “We’re just trying to reach a compromise with them.”

Despite the appeals court’s decision to stay the execution, Mr Maisonet said he was asked to come to the prison on Thursday in case the US Supreme Court fulfils the state’s request to proceed and he is needed as Ray’s spiritual adviser. According to the state’s emergency petition to the Supreme Court, Ray’s execution warrant expires just before noon on Thursday. The state asked for an expedited review.

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