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Executed Muslim Inmate In Alabama Brings National Attention To Prisoners' Religious Rights

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This Oct. 9, 2014, file photo shows the gurney in the the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
This Oct. 9, 2014, file photo shows the gurney in the the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Domineque Ray, a Muslim death-row prisoner in Alabama, was denied a request to have his imam by his side before his execution. The case, which was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, is raising questions about religious liberty.

"I was surprised because it deprived someone of sort of basic human dignity," Ray's attorney, Spencer Hahn of the Federal Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama, says of the decision. "I wasn't surprised in that we're dealing with the Alabama Department of Corrections."

Hahn tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson that through his work on lethal injection cases, he has noticed that the Alabama Department of Correction refuses to disclose or deviate from its protocol. In this case, Ray was not allowed to have his imam by his side because he was not the official prison chaplain.

"In terms of the religious leaders, their protocol appears to be that only the prison chaplain is allowed as far as spiritual advisers, and their position is that the prison chaplain happens to be a Christian," Hahn says. "He could be of any religious denomination. In this case, he happens to be a Christian, non-Catholic."

Interview Highlights

On if Ray was able to see his imam leading up to his execution

"He was. In fact, his imam actually runs a Muslim worship group that is located on death row and meets with approximately 10 Muslim inmates at a time bimonthly, when they can get there. As far as seeing his imam, they are allowed spiritual visits, I believe, quarterly. Now in the lead up to an execution like this, he was allowed to see his imam daily the last four days of his life."

"In this case, it was surprising how many people said, 'I am in favor of the death penalty, but what this is doing is wrong.' "

Spencer Hahn

On Ray's reaction to the Supreme Court ruling

"He was shocked. We've had stays pulled back that the 11th Circuit has issued, but we've never had a stay that was so — what we would call the reasoning — and it was bulletproof, for lack of a better term. The 11th Circuit made all of the right findings and used all the right language, and it should have been a fairly straightforward denial of the attorney general's request.

"And so in the hours leading up to the decision, we had been talking with Domineque, and I said, 'I can't guarantee anything, but we're 99 percent sure that the Supreme Court is not going to rule against.' And so when I had to pick up the phone a little after 8 o'clock and call the death cell, he knew as soon as he heard my voice. I just started crying as soon as I heard his voice. But he said he knew as soon as he heard my voice what that call meant. And all I could do was apologize to him, and he just was in disbelief. He couldn't believe that the Supreme Court of the United States would intervene to prevent him from having an imam present."

On Attorney General Steve Marshall's statement that lauded Ray's execution 

"I want to clarify that we represented Mr. Ray in the end stage on his religious freedom angle. He has always maintained his innocence. I didn't represent him for very long, but I want it to be clear that Mr. Ray maintained his innocence. But with that in mind, I would note that I found Attorney General Marshall's statement to be ghoulish. It was essentially spiking the ball after denying a man the basic human dignity of having a spiritual adviser in his final moments.

"I would note that normally I try to avoid reading the comments under articles online because I think it encourages trolls. But in this case, it was surprising how many people said, 'I am in favor of the death penalty, but what this is doing is wrong.' I was shocked at the outpouring of support across the spectrum from the [United States Conference of Catholic Bishops] to National Review, from The New York Times editorial page to the Socialists of America. They've all condemned this as contrary to who we are as people. And it's how we treat people who are marginalized and in some people's minds deserving of punishment. It's how we treat them that we're being judged by. And as I said in my comments to the media last week we are better than this."

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"It's an issue that we have to raise. I mean, it goes to the core of who we are as people."

Spencer Hahn

On hope for reforms after Ray's case 

"I don't believe anything the Alabama Department of Corrections says. The leadership there is not great. The rank and file officers, absolutely they are doing their best every day. But the leadership at D.O.C., I don't trust them.

"I think that they need to create a system that involves training up rabbis, imams, priests, anyone who is a spiritual adviser to anyone of any faith on death row. It is not, as I said in court when we were arguing for stay, it's not a difficult procedural task for a spiritual adviser to be present at the time of death. They appear at hospices and in hospitals to be there in people's final moments. And that's why they've chosen or some would say, they've been chosen to do what they do. And Mr. Ray's imam was perfectly willing to put up with any training and any screening requirements that would have been necessary. It would be very simple to develop a procedure 90 days out from an execution, have someone designate who their spiritual adviser is and determine whether they're willing to abide by training and conditions. It really would not be difficult at all. "

On if other death row inmates have dealt with the same experience 

"I met with his imam after court. We had the argument in district court. And he and another imam who made the drive up from Mobile to Montgomery, which is not easy, they came up to see this, and they said, 'Thank you for doing this. We have been treated unfairly by the Department of Corrections for more than 20 years.' The gentleman who was with his imam said, 'We've been telling them that we're getting unequal treatment for Muslim inmates for decades, and we don't expect that to change, but we hope it does.' I've heard outreach from other lawyers who have thanked us for raising this issue, but realistically, it's an issue that we have to raise. I mean, it goes to the core of who we are as people."

On his other clients that are requesting a spiritual adviser 

"Everyone who wants to have a spiritual adviser of their faith is at risk of being denied this at the end of their lives, and as such we have drafted a new complaint. We have a couple of clients who have expressed interest. And as soon as we've fully gone through it with them, we will file it. It will be early, but I suppose in this situation, it's better to be early than to lose out with the Supreme Court at the end."


Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on February 13, 2019.

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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.

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