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  • Caroline Koch

SCOTUS Sets Lethal Precedent: The Case of Domineque Ray

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Correctional facilities’ attempt to balance security and inmates’ constitutional rights often skews in favor of security. However, in a country that prides itself on religious freedom, Domineque Ray’s religious discrimination within the death chamber raises uncomfortable constitutional questions.

In 1994, Ray murdered two brothers, Earnest and Reinhard Mabins. While still undetected for their murders, in 1995, Ray brutally raped and murdered fifteen-year-old Tiffany Harville. His jury, by a vote of 11-1, recommended a death sentence. Almost twenty-five years later, his sentence came to fruition, and he was pronounced dead at 10:12 p.m on February seventh, less than one hour after the Supreme Court of the United States lifted the 11th Circuit’s stay. Ray’s last words were an Islamic statement of his faith in Arabic.

Ray’s emergency request for stay arose because the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) decided his imam could not accompany him during his final moments. An imam is a Muslim spiritual advisor who leads prayers and provides community support and spiritual advice. Instead, the ADOC provides a Christian Chaplain employed by the facility to enter the death chamber and accompany the inmate. The ADOC claims that in its 64 executions since reestablishing the death penalty in 1976, an Alabama inmate has never objected to the Christian Chaplain’s presence. ADOC maintained that not allowing Ray’s imam into the death chamber was strictly due to security concerns and ADOC protocol and was not based on Ray’s Muslim faith.

While death row inmates commonly experience a restricted version of constitutional rights, Larson v. Valente held that the “clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.” If Alabama did not provide Christian Chaplains to accompany inmates into the death chamber, there would be no constitutional issue here. However, by allowing inmates access to a Christian Chaplin and not an imam, Alabama is blatantly preferring and providing access to one religious denomination over another. Regardless of the popularity of either religion in Alabama, allowing a Christian Chaplain to hold a dying Christian inmate’s hand and not allowing an imam to do to same for a Muslim inmate is discriminatory.

The day before his execution, the 11th Circuit granted Ray a stay citing concerns that Alabama treats Muslim inmates facing lethal injection differently than Christian inmates with the same sentence. Despite the lower court’s reasoning that “Ray has had ample opportunity in the past twelve years to seek a religious exemption, instead of waiting until the eleventh hour to do so”, the 11th Circuit put the Establishment Clause of the Constitution above the lower court’s intuition.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States lifted the 11th Circuit’s stay. SCOTUS reiterated the district court’s concerns that Ray waited too long to request special accommodations and emphasized the ADOC’s protocol for only allowing employees into the death chamber. After the ruling, the ADOC did honor Ray’s request that the Christian Chaplain be removed during his execution. However, Ray was without his Quran for two nights before his execution. Because of his lawyers’ efforts, he was given his Quran back on Thursday before the execution but his imam was prohibited from reading him the Quran during his passing.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent that she considered the decision to let the execution go forward “profoundly wrong” because “under [the state’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 core principle of denominational neutrality.”

After Ray’s execution, the ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn said that the department is prepared to execute more inmates this year. Dunn said the ADOC “has not made any changes to the formal protocol” that would allow chaplains of any faith into the execution chamber. According to the the SCOTUS precedent from Ray, an inmate who initially requests a chaplain of a different faith has a better case for an accomodation. Until then, serious constitutional issues remain.


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