The State of Alabama put a man to death Thursday. He was the 217th person to die under the state’s death penalty – the 64th execution since a moratorium on executions in Alabama was lifted in 1983.
Dominique Ray’s execution is troubling. Not because there was any question about his guilt. Debates about the moral failings of the death penalty aside, there was no reason why Ray should not see the sentence imposed on him for the murder of 15-year-old Tiffany Harville almost 25 years ago carried out at long last.
What’s troubling about Ray’s execution is the constitutional question it raises. Ray, who embraced Islam while incarcerated, wanted an imam present with him in the death chamber. Prison officials refused, saying they could provide a Christian prison chaplain. Ray’s attorneys sued, and a stay of execution was issued to sort it all out.
Prison officials argue that only corrections system employees are allowed in the execution chamber as a matter of security, which is reasonable. In an earlier editorial, we suggested the prison system work to create a pool of spiritual leaders from other faiths, and vet them accordingly. That seems reasonable as well.
However, Ray’s position was that he was receiving unequal treatment because he, a Muslim, did not have the same opportunity in the execution chamber as a Christian prisoner would. And he’s right – the constitutional religious protections suggest that a condemned inmate of any stripe should have the same access to a representative of their chosen faith.
The matter made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in a 5-4 decision, vacated the stay imposed by a lower court to allow the execution to proceed. The reason – Ray had waited too long to raise his objection.
In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan argues that Alabama’s policy of making available only a Christian chaplain violates the constitution’s Establishment clause:
“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 side. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause's core principle of denominational neutrality.”
For Ray, the argument is moot. However, despite the high court’s green light for Ray’s execution, Alabama officials must undertake an in-depth review of procedures surrounding the treatment of the state’s inmates, not only to ensure constitutional rights are upheld, but to avoid future litigation that the state can hardly afford.