It was the kind of outrageous story that grabbed the attention of GetReligion readers, as well as old-school First Amendment liberals who care deeply about protecting religious liberty.
Plenty of journalists saw the importance of this story last week, which tends to happen when a dispute ends up at the U.S. Supreme Court and creates a sharp 5-4 split among the justices.
The question, in this case, was whether journalists grasped some of the most symbolic, painful details in this execution case in Alabama. I looked at several stories and this USA Today report — “Alabama executes Muslim inmate Domineque Ray who asked for imam to be present“ — was better than the mainstream norm. Here is the overture:
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama death row inmate Domineque Ray died by lethal injection Thursday evening with his imam present in an adjoining chamber. …
Ray was executed after an 11th-hour ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay of execution pending a religious rights claim. Ray, a Muslim, had argued Alabama's practice of including a Christian prison chaplain in the execution chamber was in violation of the First Amendment. Ray sought to have his imam present in the death chamber at the time of his death.
Imam Yusef Maisonet, Ray's spiritual adviser, witnessed Ray's execution from a chamber which held media and prison officials. Two lawyers accompanied Maisonet.
When the curtain opened at 9:44 p.m., Ray lifted his head from the gurney, looking into the witness room. With his right hand in a fist, he extended a pointer finger.
Maisonet appeared to mirror the gesture and murmured that it was an acknowledgement of the singular God of the Islamic faith. When asked if he had any final words, Ray gave a brief faith declaration in Arabic.
OK, I will ask: What did Ray say, in Arabic? Did he speak Arabic? If not, then the odds are very good that Ray’s final words were a memorized quote from the Koran. It would have been good to have known the specifics.
That’s an important missing detail, but not the key to this story. The big issue, in this case, was that Ray was executed without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side. USA Today managed to get that detail — along with the crucial fact that state policy only allowed a Christian chaplain in the execution room — at the top of this report. That’s where those facts belonged.