Muslim denied presence of imam at his execution in Alabama

The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison completed in 2010  Credit CACorrections California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Wikimedia CNA 5 8 15 A lethal injection chamber in California. | CACorrections

A Muslim man convicted of murder has been executed in Alabama without his imam present, despite the man's requests to have his spiritual advisor with him during his execution.

Domineque Ray, 42, was sentenced to death for the 1995 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl. Ray specifically requested that the Christian prison chaplain be excluded from the execution chamber, and asked that his imam be present to "provide spiritual guidance for him at the time of his death."

He also requested that he not be required to undergo an autopsy, as that would have conflicted with his religious beliefs. The warden reportedly denied the first two requests and said she had no authority to grant the third.

Consequently, the prison's officials said they would allow the Christian chaplain, Chris Summers, into the execution chamber to kneel and pray with the prisoner, though the prisoner would not be required to pray with the chaplain. The officials reportedly said it would be a security risk to let a non-employee of the state's correctional department into the execution chamber.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday granted a stay of execution until it could determine whether the prison had violated the Constitution's Establishment Clause, after Ray appealed the prison's decision. In defending the prison's decision, the state said Ray's imam, Yusef Maisonet, would be allowed to visit him on the day of the execution and could accompany him up until he entered the execution chamber.

The Supreme Court decided 5-4 Feb. 7 that Ray's execution could go ahead, and he was subsequently executed that evening by lethal injection. The court's majority cited the last-minute nature of Ray's request as a reason for vacating the stay.

The Christian chaplain was reportedly excluded from the execution, as Ray had requested.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissent, calling the court's decision "profoundly wrong" and quoting from the court's decision in the 1982 case of Larson v. Valente: "The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another."

"But the State's policy does just that," she wrote.

"Under that policy, a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites. 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."

Kagan acknowledged that prison security could constitute a "compelling interest" that could justify religious discrimination, but claimed that the state had offered "no evidence to show that its wholesale prohibition on outside spiritual advisers is necessary to achieve that goal."

Kagan also spoke out against the Supreme Court's decision to vacate the stay of execution because Ray did not file his request "in a timely manner," pointing out that the Alabama state code does not explicitly prohibit "the inmate's spiritual adviser of choice" from being present in the execution chamber.

The prison also reportedly refused to give Ray a copy of its own practices and procedures.

"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," Kagan wrote.

Ray's imam told local media that he considered it important that he be present for Ray's death in order to ensure that the inmate died according to his faith.

"I know the things that are required of Muslims before they die," Yusef Maisonet, imam of Masjid As Salaam in Mobile, told on Feb. 1.

"We want to make sure his last words are, 'There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet….If they exclude me, [a Christian chaplain and other prison staff] may ask him something and ask him to reply and those won't be his last words."

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