There is no “right” way for a state to kill a person. Those that employ state-sponsored killings -- Alabama, for instance -- believe otherwise. But it’s impossible. Ending a person’s life isn’t a simple judicial task draped in governmental bureaucracy. It’s complicated, wrapped in myriad layers of criminality, justice and civil rights, and it’s flat-out wrong.
Alabama proved that again this week.
Our state executed death-row inmate Domineque Ray late Thursday night. It was a foregone conclusion, despite repeated attempts by Ray’s attorneys to keep their client from dying by lethal injection. Ray had murdered a Selma teenager, Tiffany Harville, in 1995 and deserved severe and lifelong punishment. His actions were abhorrent to a civilized society.
But his final days unveiled the Alabama Department of Corrections’ clumsy protocol that allows only approved corrections officials in the execution chamber. Among those “approved corrections officials” is a Christian chaplain. But the department does not employ a Jewish chaplain, or a Muslim chaplain, or a chaplain from other faiths. In Alabama, if you are condemned to die, you can only have a taxpayer-paid Christian chaplain by your side when you are killed.
Ray, however, was a devout Muslim. And the state’s refusal to allow his imam in the execution chamber exemplified not only religious discrimination by the Alabama Department of Corrections, but also the impossibility of carrying out state-sponsored killings in a manner not fraught with mistakes. At least a judge allowed Ray’s request to have the Christian chaplain not attend his execution.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Thursday to allow the execution to proceed. But we wholeheartedly agree with Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote in her dissenting opinion, “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’s core principle of denominational neutrality. Here, Ray has put forward a powerful claim that his religious rights will be violated at the moment the State puts him to death.”
Long has it been understood that some inmates facing long prison sentences find religion when incarcerated. The sincerity of their faith is their business. But if our state is going to continue executing inmates, the least the Alabama Department of Corrections can do is to allow ministers of the condemned’s faith to attend their death.