At 9:44 Thursday night, the curtain opened on the execution chamber at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. Domineque Ray lay strapped to a gurney, according to his lawyer, who was present. Looking into the witness room, Ray pointed his right index finger — an Islamic gesture to show the “oneness” of God — and spoke in Arabic, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet.”
Ray, convicted of three murders committed as a teenager, was soon dead by lethal injection, his last moments having been sealed by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier that day. Ray’s lawyers had won a stay from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after arguing that the prison’s refusal to allow an imam to be with him in the chamber was a violation of religious freedom protections. But in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court found that Ray’s appeal on religious grounds had come too late. Dissenting, Justice Elena Kagan called the decision “profoundly wrong.”
Spencer Hahn, one of Ray’s lawyers, said he was on the phone with Ray Thursday when they found out that the stay had been vacated. “He could not believe it,” Hahn said of Ray. “Nobody could believe it. We’ve had stays taken away from us in the past, but this was so obviously unconstitutional.”
Hahn on Friday said the prison had failed to honor its pledge that Ray would have access to an imam “immediately prior” to the execution. Instead, Hahn said, Ray’s last contact with his chosen religious adviser came three hours before his death. A request for comment to the Alabama Department of Corrections was not immediately returned.
Ray, 42, was convicted in 1999 of killing two teenage brothers in his hometown of Selma. Later that year, he was convicted of raping and killing a 15-year-old Selma girl. The jury at the second trial voted 11-1 for the death penalty.
Ray’s lawyers, insisting on his innocence, mounted various unsuccessful appeals over the years, alleging that prosecutors withheld critical evidence about other suspects, and most recently, claiming that prosecutors withheld documents showing that Ray’s alleged partner in the murders, Marcus Owden, was suffering from schizophrenia when he testified against Ray at the two trials. Owden had confessed to the crimes in exchange for being spared the death penalty. On Thursday, the Supreme Court declined to review the claim of prosecutorial misconduct.
One aspect of Ray’s appeals concerned the adequacy of his representation during the penalty phase of the second trial. His lawyers argued that Ray’s trial lawyers had failed to present evidence of Ray’s impoverished and abusive childhood as well as his mental health history. The trial lawyers said they had been limited in their ability to research Ray’s life. Both state and federal judges rejected the claim of inadequate counsel.
ProPublica recently contacted nine of the 12 men and women who served on the jury in Ray’s 1999 trial. Some did not want to talk. Others said they had no qualms about Ray’s execution. The one juror who had voted to spare Ray, Angela Rose, said the details of Ray’s upbringing did not surprise her. One juror who had voted for death, Nathaniel Holmes Jr., said he wished he’d known the details of Ray’s childhood back in 1999. He said he hoped he hadn’t made a mistake.
Rose, in a brief interview Friday, said, “From Day One, I felt bad because of the verdict that was given.” Rose had initially voted to acquit Ray, but later joined in the unanimous guilty verdict.
“You can take a man’s life all day long, but are you really getting justice taking a life for a life?” she asked. “I still feel they should’ve given him life instead of giving him the death penalty.”
Peter Racher, who had represented Ray in his appeals for more than a decade, spent the hours before the execution at a gas station near the prison, waiting for the Supreme Court’s ruling and, after it came, went to the execution chamber.
Racher said Ray’s left arm shuddered for several seconds after the lethal injection, but that his eyes soon closed, and he was pronounced dead at 10:12 p.m.
ProPublica spoke with Ray by telephone on Jan. 23. Ray was confident that the courts would rule in his favor.
“The warden said it’s just protocol they have to follow,” he said. “I was like, ‘Okay, I understand, but there’s still protocol under the U.S. Supreme Court that I follow.’”
According to Racher, Ray will be buried in an Islamic ceremony in Mobile.