Domineque Ray’s death in an Alabama prison this year would have gone mostly unnoticed had it not been for his desire to have an imam by his side as he was executed.
When the Supreme Court refused to stay his execution to grant his request, his case made national headlines—highlighting the rarely discussed religious rights of Muslim death row prisoners and the embedded Islamophobia and anti-blackness of the court.
Ray was convicted in the murder of three people and sentenced to receive the death penalty in 1995 after having already been sentenced to life in prison. However, as some have noted, that decision was terribly flawed— which isn’t surprising considering how much higher the odds are for black people of being wrongfully convicted, and how much higher the odds are for black people who have been convicted of being executed.
At the end of Ray’s life, the debate was not about his conviction but his religious freedom claims. His case showed how his right to religious freedom was no right at all. In their 5-4 ruling vacating the stay on Ray’s execution, the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority relied on process and timing to deny his claim and reverse the decision of the Appeals Court that had explicitly recognized Ray’s religious rights were being fundamentally violated, stating that, “If Ray were a Christian, he would have a profound benefit; because he is a Muslim, he is denied that benefit.”
But, as Justice Kagan argued in her dissent, Ray was only notified of the execution protocols five days prior to when he filed the claim. Moreover, if a white Christian in Alabama had made the same claim to be executed with a chaplain of his same faith, he would have died in the presence of Reverend Chris Summers, who has been present in most executions since 1997 in Alabama.
Some have argued that this case cannot possibly be anti-Muslim, because the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Muslim rights in the past, including one permitting a Muslim prisoner to grow a beard. But this ignores the host of other Islamophobic policies that the court has recently upheld—most significantly the Muslim Ban.
Back to the Alabama case, was Reverend Summers the only chaplain at the prison? No. I talked to Imam Yusef Maisonet, who had been screened as a chaplain at Holman prison, where there are nine Muslim prisoners currently on death row, since 2015. According to Imam Maisonet, there were 10 Muslim prisoners on death row—now nine as of last week.
Hours prior to his execution, Ray had requested a Quran for his cell adjacent to the death chamber but prison officials refused, even though it had already been screened and vetted by the prison, Imam Maisonet told me. It was only when the imam came to the prison to bid Ray farewell that the prisoner was allowed to keep his copy of the Quran.
The imam told me that he had never been asked to receive the necessary training to be present in the execution chamber, and that after Ray’s execution prison officials had said that it would have been a security threat to let someone in who wasn’t an employee. Imam Maisonet, who watched Ray’s death through a glass wall, dismissed that claim. “All of this was just politics,” he said, noting that “they locked me in a cell with 10 death row inmates” with no security concerns at all.
Ray’s last conversation with the imam was about dying as a Muslim and asking Allah for forgiveness, though Ray had told the imam that he was innocent. They parted ways with the Islamic greeting Assalamu Alaikum.
Fifteen minutes after he was lethally injected, Ray was declared dead. His last words in the death chamber room, according to Imam Maisonet, were La Illaha Il Allah Muhamad Rasul Ul Allah (There is no God, but Allah and Muhammad is his Messenger). Though the state sought to erase Islam in that moment, they could not erase it from Ray’s heart.
Few people will learn what religious freedom means when faced with death, and while Ray was ultimately denied this right, he claimed what he could in his final moments.