Federal appeals court stays execution of prisoner denied imam in execution chamber
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Federal appeals court stays execution of prisoner denied imam in execution chamber

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit stayed the execution Wednesday of Domineque Hakim Marcelle Ray, an Alabama death row inmate who was denied the presence of his imam in the execution chamber.

Ray was convicted of the 1995 rape, robbery and murder of a 15-year-old and sentenced to death. He was informed on January 23, just two weeks before his execution, that under Alabama policy Chaplain Chris Summers would be present in the execution chamber and available to pray with Ray as his execution took place. His imam would be allowed to pray with him in the days leading up to his death and even on the day of execution but would be allowed only in an observation area not the execution chamber itself. Ray, a devout Muslim since 2006, requested that the chaplain be excluded from the room and his imam be present instead. This request was denied by the warden.

Ray brought a series of claims alleging that his religious freedoms were being infringed by Holman Correctional Facility and the Alabama Department of Corrections. Ray claimed that the exclusion of his imam violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Ray further argued that requiring a christian chaplain to be in the chamber violated this same statute as both of these created a substantial burden on his free exercise of religion. Ray then argued that this practice also violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prevents granting establishment or preference to one religion over another. Ray petitioned the district court for a motion to stay his execution until these claims could be reviewed.

The district court rejected Ray’s claims finding that he was guilty of an “inexcusable delay” in not challenging these claims until now which created a heavy presumption against granting a stay. The Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding that there was a significant likelihood Ray would succeed on his Establishment Clause claim, and granted an immediate stay directing the clerk to expedite his appeal so the merits of the case could be reviewed.