Alabama DOC Refuses Muslim Spiritual Adviser in Execution Chamber
by Kevin W. Bliss
Domineque Hakim Marcelle Ray, 42, was put to death by lethal injection at Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility on February 7, 2019, after his request to have his Muslim spiritual adviser, Imam Yusef Maisonet, present in the execution chamber was denied. [See: PLN, Mar. 2019, p.30].
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on the day of Ray’s execution that the Alabama Department of Corrections’ (ADOC) policy of allowing only the prison’s Christian chaplain to attend executions did not violate Ray’s religious rights. Justice Elena Kagen dissented, noting that the policy means “a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites,” but one who practices another religion “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,” Kagen concluded. See: Dunn v. Ray, 139 S. Ct. 661 (2019).
Ray was sentenced to death for the 1995 brutal rape and fatal stabbing of 15-year-old Tiffany Harville in Selma; he was also serving a life sentence for the 1994 slayings of two brothers, Reinhard Mabins, 13, and Earnest Mabins, 18, who were shot to death in their home for refusing to join Ray’s gang. His accomplice in both crimes was Marcus Owden, a fellow gang member who underwent a “spiritual awakening” in 1997 that led him to confess to the police and implicate Ray in the murders.
Ray’s appeal of his conviction based on Owden’s medical history of schizophrenia was denied by a Dallas County judge in 2018. Owden is presently serving life without parole at the Donaldson Correctional Facility.
One week before his scheduled execution, on January 31, 2019, Ray filed for an emergency stay. He claimed that Holman’s warden, Cynthia Stewart, had violated his First Amendment religious rights by refusing to allow his imam in the execution chamber.
Represented by Spencer Hahn with the Federal Public Defenders office and attorney John Palombi, Ray claimed the ADOC’s policy, which effectively mandates a Christian chaplain’s presence at all executions regardless of a prisoner’s religion, serves no compelling governmental interest. In fact, Hahn argued, “[It] can serve only one purpose – an unconstitutional one – safeguarding the soul or spiritual health of the condemned inmate in the Christian belief system.”
Prison officials offered to waive the requirement that a chaplain be present in the execution chamber, so that Ray would not be attended by a Christian minister. But they pointed to another ADOC policy that only allows prison employees trained in execution chamber protocol to be present during executions, which precluded Imam Maisonet.
Middle District of Alabama Chief U.S. District Court Judge Keith Watkins denied Ray’s requested stay, but that order was reversed on February 6, 2019 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which found it substantially likely that “Alabama was violating the Constitution’s First Amendment right to religious freedom” by adopting policies that gave preference to one religion over another.
While the state contended on appeal that Ray should have raised his First Amendment claims earlier, the appellate court rejected that argument. “Given the paucity of evidence, it is not altogether surprising that the state has not even clearly argued that Ray knew or should have known sooner that his religious beliefs would not be accommodated. The state argued before the district court only at the highest order of abstraction that ‘Mr. Ray is responsible for the delay’ because ‘[c]ertainly Mr. Ray could have pursued this claim or pursued his desire to have a private spiritual advisor at an earlier time.’” However, prison officials had denied Ray’s request to review the ADOC’s policy related to the presence of spiritual advisers in the execution chamber, and there was no evidence he was previously aware of that policy. See: Ray v. Comm’r, Ala. Dep’t of Corr., 915 F.3d 689 (11th Cir. 2019).
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court reversed and lifted the stay on February 7, 2019, around 8 p.m. Ray’s execution by lethal injection, originally scheduled for earlier that evening, started less than an hour later. The official time of death was recorded as 10:12 p.m. Maisonet observed the execution from the viewing chamber with prison officials and members of the media; the victim’s family did not attend.
Saying that “our legal system has worked as designed,” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey offered her “prayer that, with tonight’s events, Miss Harville’s family can finally have closure.”
“Domineque was a devout Muslim and a human being. He was a son, a father, a brother. He wanted equal treatment in his last moments. I am beyond appalled at the willingness of Steve Marshall and the State of Alabama to treat a human being differently because he was part of a religious minority,” countered Hahn. “We are better than this.”
After the execution, ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the policy on participation of the prison’s chaplain in the execution chamber had not been changed. Noting that volunteer chaplains of multiple faiths are relied on “heavily” for other forms of spiritual guidance, Dunn admitted that to employ a chaplain who meets the ADOC’s execution chamber protocol, the department uses a state registry of chaplains who are qualified. It was unclear whether any of the chaplains on that registry were of the Muslim faith.
Sources: theguardian.com, apnews.com, al.com, montgomeryadvertiser.com, CNN
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