Muslim Death Row Inmate’s Request to Have Imam Accompany Him Into Death Chamber is Denied: Religious Freedom for Me, But Not for Thee?
By Ken K. Gourdin
Domineque Ray, who was sentenced to death for the robbery, rape, and murder of fifteen-year-old Tiffany Harville in 1995, and had been incarcerated at Atmore, Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility since his conviction, was executed on February 7, 2019. A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Alabama, heard Mr. Ray’s appeal of a of lower court’s denial of Mr. Ray’s challenge of an Alabama Department of Corrections policy that only a Christian chaplain is allowed to accompany condemned prisoners into the death chamber. Reportedly, Mr. Ray has been a committed Muslim since at least 2006.
According to the Eleventh Circuit judges’ order granting the stay of execution, Holman’s Warden, Cynthia Stewart, met with Mr. Ray on January 23, explaining (apparently for the first time) the facility’s procedures for executing death row inmates, including the fact that the facility’s Christian chaplain is the only religious leader allowed to accompany inmates into the death chamber. Mr. Ray’s repeated requests of both the chaplain and the warden that the chaplain be excluded from the chamber and that an imam be allowed to accompany him into the chamber were denied. Mr. Ray’s request to see the policy in question permitting only the facility’s Christian chaplain in the death chamber also was denied. The Eleventh Circuit panel’s order granting the stay, to which I am indebted for many of the details contained herein can be found here (this and all other links last accessed February 21, 2019):
In her dissent from the order of the United States Supreme Court lifting the stay of execution granted by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit—which was joined by her colleagues on the Court’s liberal wing, Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Breyer, respectively—Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan notes that the Alabama statute governing the presence of religious leaders at executions
. . . provides that both the chaplain of the prison and the inmate’s spiritual adviser of choice “may be present at an execution.” Ala. Code §15–18–83(a) (2018). It makes no distinction between persons who may be present within the execution chamber and those who may enter only the viewing room. And [as I noted above] the prison refused to give Ray a copy of its own practices and procedures (which would have made that distinction clear). So there is no reason Ray should have known, prior to January 23, that his imam would be granted less access than the Christian chaplain to the execution chamber.
586 U.S. _____ (2019) (Kagan, J. dissenting). (I think even the short interim between when Mr. Ray first had these procedures explained to him and his scheduled execution date, standing alone, might well constitute a denial of due process.) This excerpt can be found on page 3 of Justice Kagan’s slip opinion, which I accessed on line at the following address: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/18a815_3d9g.pdf.
Coverage of the case in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News can be found here: https://www.deseretnews.com/article/900056040/what-a-supreme-court-order-on-a-muslim-death-row-inmate-says-about-the-role-of-judges.html.
In response to other comments on that coverage, I wrote:
I’m disappointed at some of the comments here, including some which, apparently, are coming from my co-religionists (fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). A prevalent attitude seems to be, in essence, “Religious freedom for me, but not for thee.” Some people seem to approve of (or at least, to not mind) what happened here simply because it wasn’t their ox being gored. While I agree with others that this man forfeited a good number of rights and privileges when, according to a jury, he decided to murder someone, it seems reasonable to me that, when someone is facing the “long day’s journey into night,” he ought to be afforded the comfort of being escorted to that threshold by someone who shares his religious outlook. If that person needs to be trained, train him. Given the long, tortured legal road to most executions, it’s not as though such a need is a surprise which catches the state unawares. In case you haven’t noticed, generally, courts haven’t been amenable to religious freedom claims in the last 30 or so years. You and your religion could be next.
One need not read very much of this Blog to realize that I have a very strong pro-law-and-order, pro-police-and-pro-prosecution orientation. However, if one of the hallmarks of a decent, just, moral society is how it treats its members who perhaps least deserve such treatment, then perhaps the Ray case is an example of how far we still have to go in that regard.