Supreme Court rejects inmate’s request for imam at execution

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court narrowly rejected the request of a Muslim Death Row inmate to have a clergy member of his own religion present in the execution chamber. Justices announced the decision on Feb. 7, with the court’s four most liberal members going against the majority decision.

            Domineque Hakim Marcelle Ray, a Death Row inmate in Alabama, sought to have an imam present with him in the execution chamber. Ray’s execution was scheduled to take place on Feb. 7. The Supreme Court heard Ray’s appeal ahead of the execution.

            Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissenting opinion in Dunn vs. Ray; the case came to the Supreme Court on appeal from the 11th Circuit on Feb. 6. Three justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, joined Kagan in dissent.

            A three-judge panel in the 11th Circuit ruled Holman Correctional Facility, where Ray was on Death Row, might have violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause in denying the Muslim man’s request to have an imam present in the execution chamber. Supreme Court justices reversed the 11th Circuit ruling, which was entered into on Feb. 6.

            “Holman Correctional Facility, the Alabama prison where Domineque Ray will be executed tonight, regularly allows a Christian chaplain to be present in the execution chamber. But Ray is Muslim. And the prison refused his request to have an imam attend him in the last moments of his life,” Kagan stated in her dissent, calling the majority opinion “an abuse of discretion.”

            Kagan cited Larson vs. Valente in her dissent, a 1982 Supreme Court ruling stating, “The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.”

            “[Alabama’s] policy does just that,” Kagan stated in dissent, pointing out the majority opinion, to her, was inconsistent with the Larson vs. Valente ruling. “Under [Alabama’s] 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 own side.

            “That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality,” Kagan continued.

            Ray, according to Kagan’s dissenting opinion, formally requested an imam to be by his side in the execution chamber; the prison warden denied his request on Jan. 23. A legal complaint against the denial was filed on Jan. 28, with the 11th Circuit hearing Ray’s case on Feb. 6.

            Alabama’s lawyers claimed Ray should have made his claim earlier, since his execution date was set on Nov. 6, 2018.

            “The relevant statute would not have placed Ray on notice that the prison would deny his request. To the contrary, that statute provides that both the chaplain of the prison and the inmate’s spiritual adviser of choice ‘may be present at an execution,’” Kagan stated.

            “[The Alabama statute] makes no distinction between persons who may be present within the execution chamber and those who may enter only the viewing room,” Kagan continued. “And 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.”

            Ray, in 1995, was convicted to death for the rape, robbery and murder of 15-year-old Tiffany Harville outside of Selma, Alabama, according to news reports.

            Voting in the majority were Chief Justice John G. Roberts and justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh. The majority did not file a formal statement on its opinion.

            The New York Times reported Ray was executed just after 10 p.m. on Feb. 7 – about four hours later than originally scheduled.