A Muslim inmate has seen his execution blocked at the 11th hour after he was denied a request to have an imam present at the time of his death.
Dominique Ray, 42, was due to die by lethal injection over the murder of a teenager more than two decades ago.
But the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay for Ray, who has been imprisoned at the Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama for nearly 20 years, the day before he was scheduled to be put to death.
Ray objected to Alabama’s practice of allowing a Christian prison chaplain, who is a prison system employee, to stand near the inmate during the lethal injection and to pray with the inmate if the inmate requests it.
The killer asked to bring in his imam to stand with him during the procedure, but was told he could not because only prison employees were allowed in the execution chamber.
A three-judge panel of judges wrote that it was ‘exceedingly loath to substitute our judgement on prison procedures’.
But, they added that it ‘looks substantially likely to us that Alabama has run afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment’.
The panel wrote: ‘The central constitutional problem here is that the state has regularly placed a Christian cleric in the execution room to minister to the needs of Christian inmates, but has refused to provide the same benefit to a devout Muslim and all other non-Christians.’
The Alabama chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said it supported Ray’s bid to have an Islamic leader present.
Ali Massoud, government affairs coordinator for CAIR-Alabama, said in a statement: ‘We welcome this decision and hope Mr Ray will ultimately be provided equal access to spiritual guidance.
In opposing the stay, the Alabama attorney general’s office said Alabama allows inmates to visit with a spiritual adviser of their choosing before an execution, and they can have the adviser witness the execution from a room adjoining the execution chamber.
They said the state has a security interest in keeping non-prison employees out of the room during the procedure.
The state agreed to remove the prison chaplain from the chamber but the federal appeals court said the case merited review.
Robert Dunham, executive director, of the Death Penalty Information Centre which studies capital punishment in the US, says generally other states allow spiritual or religious advisers to accompany the inmate up to the execution chamber but not into it.
Instead the adviser can witness the execution, as do other people, from a designated area.
He did not know of any other states where the execution protocol calls for a Christian chaplain to be present in the execution chamber.
Ray was convicted in the fatal stabbing of a 15-year-old Tiffany Harville, who disappeared from her Selma home in July 1995.
Her decomposing body was found in a field a month later.
The state of Alabama said it would appeal the decision to stay the execution.