The State of Alabama executed Domineque Ray tonight after the United States Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals's order staying the execution based on Mr. Ray's "powerful" claim that the prison's refusal to allow an imam in the execution chamber would violate his right to exercise his religion.
Mr. Ray has been a devout Muslim since 2006 and has met for years with Imam Yusef Maisonet, who ministers to people incarcerated in Alabama. Mr. Ray filed the claim after the warden refused his requests to have an imam with him in the execution chamber and to exclude the state-employed Protestant chaplain from the room. Mr. Maisonet told the New York Times that it was important for him to be present inside the execution chamber to ensure that the last words Mr. Ray utters are a "confirmation of his faith." The Federal Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama was counsel for Mr. Ray's challenge to allow his imam in the execution chamber with him.
The State appealed to the United States Supreme Court to overturn the stay. Shortly after 8:00 p.m. Central time, the Court voted 5-4 to vacate the stay. Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, dissented. Justice Kagan reasoned that under Alabama'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." The dissent concluded that the Court's decision to permit the execution to go forward is "profoundly wrong." Justice Kagan wrote:
Ray has put forward a powerful claim that his religious rights will be violated at the moment the State puts him to death. The Eleventh Circuit wanted to hear that claim in full. Instead, this Court short-circuits that ordinary process—and itself rejects the claim with little briefing and no argument—just so the State can meet its preferred execution date.
Mr. Ray lost access to his imam at 5:15 pm and was without his presence in the more than three hours that preceded his death.
The State carried out Mr. Ray's execution despite facts that undermine the reliability of his conviction.
Mr. Ray was convicted of capital murder in Dallas County based on testimony from his alleged accomplice, Marcus Owden, who was suffering from schizophrenia when he testified against Mr. Ray, according to recently disclosed records. The law requires prosecutors to disclose information about the reliability of witnesses, but the State withheld this critical evidence from the defense.
In 1997, Marcus Owden told police that he and Mr. Ray were involved in the 1995 death of Tiffany Harville. Police arrested Mr. Ray, interrogated him without a lawyer, and then had him record a statement in which he said he was present when Mr. Owden killed Ms. Harville. Mr. Ray recanted almost immediately and has steadfastly maintained his innocence. Mr. Owden pleaded guilty and promised to testify against Mr. Ray in order to avoid the death penalty.
No physical evidence connected Mr. Ray to the crime. No other evidence placed him or Mr. Owden in Dallas County at the time of the murder. Mr. Owden’s testimony was the State’s only evidence that Mr. Ray supposedly raped, robbed, and killed the victim.
At the time of trial, the State had records documenting Mr. Owden's propensity for lying, his hallucinations and delusions, bizarre speech patterns, and his diagnoses of serious mental illness, psychosis, and schizophrenia, but it did not disclose this information to the defense.
Mr. Ray did not learn about this evidence until his lawyer visited Mr. Owden in prison in 2017, and Mr. Owden revealed he was being medicated with psychotropic drugs commonly used to treat schizophrenia. Mr. Owden consented to the release of his prison medical records, which showed that he has a significant history of serious psychosis and schizophrenia, including hallucinations, paranoia, and bizarre behaviors and beliefs, for which the State has been treating him for many years. The records indicated that additional materials existed that predated Mr. Ray's trial.
As Mr. Ray's counsel were gathering these records, the State moved for the state supreme court to set an execution date. The court granted that motion and scheduled today's execution date.
On January 4, 2019, the State finally produced for the first time mental health records that predated Mr. Ray’s trial and were part of the State’s file at the time of Mr. Ray’s trial. The records show that Mr. Owden was exhibiting the signs and symptoms of schizophrenia, including hallucinations and delusions, at the time he implicated and testified against Mr. Ray.
The Supreme Court refused to hear Mr. Ray's appeal arguing that the State violated the Constitution when it withheld this vital information about its key witness.
Denial of Adequate Counsel
Mr. Ray was represented by lawyers from Plews Shadley Racher & Braun in Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition to arguing about the State's withholding of critical information, counsel for Mr. Ray also argued that his defense counsel failed to provide adequate representation at trial, especially at the penalty phase. As ProPublica reports, Mr. Ray's trial lawyers did not come close to meeting the constitutional requirements for investigation in a death penalty case. They did not hire an investigator to look into his background, withdrew a request to have him evaluated by a forensic neuropsychologist, did not research school records or records describing his experience in foster care, and did not even talk to family members who would have been willing to testify.
As a result, they presented only a single witness, Mr. Ray's mother, who testified for about 10 minutes that she loved her son and his life had not been easy.
Current counsel uncovered details about Mr. Ray's horrifying upbringing. As detailed in court filings, Mr. Ray was beaten and sexually abused from the time he was a toddler. He and his brother were shuffled around between different family members in different cities. After their mother left them in a rodent- and maggot-infested abandoned building in Chicago, Mr. Ray was put in the child welfare system.
He was then sent off to suffer more, sexually abused by his stepmother’s family as a toddler and encouraged by his mother to have sex with her friends when he was a teenager. He never made it past eighth grade. He’s since been diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder, characterized by severe social anxiety, paranoia and unusual beliefs.
The Eleventh Circuit wrote that it was "troubled by the paucity of counsel's mitigation investigation," and that the omitted mitigation evidence was "profound and compelling" but nonetheless denied relief based on the reasoning that the evidence would not have made a difference to Mr. Ray's jury.
But at least three jurors disagree, they told ProPublica after hearing about Mr. Ray's childhood. Nathaniel Holmes Jr. voted for death. He told ProPublica that if Mr. Ray's lawyers had "presented all of this to the 12 people that were there, then maybe would have reconsidered."
“You can’t go out there and half-ass do a job. You can’t do it,” he said.
“I just hope I didn’t make a mistake,” he added.
Did he regret his vote?
“Yeah,” he said.