Maryland is considering becoming one of the few states to allow condemned inmates to choose a clergy member not employed by the state to be in the execution chamber when they die.
Corrections officials must balance the sensitive issues of security during one of the gravest tasks undertaken by the state and religious freedom during a condemned person’s final moments.
The measure is being considered by Maryland legislators at a time when the death penalty is essentially on hold there after a court found that the way the state lethally injected its inmates wasn’t properly approved.
Most of the 35 states with capital punishment allow an inmate to meet with clergy of their choice in the hours before an execution, but the majority of them require spiritual advisers to watch the execution from an adjoining room. Several states, including Maryland, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, allow an official prison chaplain to be in the room during the execution.
Maryland based its new proposal on a similar policy Oklahoma put in place in 2004, although officials there have changed their regulations since Maryland learned about them. Oklahoma has not allowed any clergy in the death chamber for two or three years, since an inmate’s religious adviser showed up wearing an ankle-monitoring device because he was on probation, said Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
“We had an outside chaplain in there once that created a security issue, so we just decided not to have any chaplains in there,” Massie said, noting that clergy can observe from another room.
Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Maryland’s proposal has safeguards, chiefly a requirement that the corrections commissioner must approve the inmate’s choice.
“The security policies in the proposed regulations, we think, will be more than adequate to handle any similar situation,” Binetti said.
Chaplain Gary Friedman, a spokesman for the American Correctional Chaplains Association, recalled intervening on behalf of a Jewish death row inmate in Texas who wanted to arrange for rabbi to be with him in the chamber about 10 years ago. At first, Friedman said, Texas officials were not going to allow a rabbi who worked for the state corrections department to attend, saying the duty had to be performed by an assigned department chaplain.
“We had to go all the way to the governor’s office,” Friedman said, before Texas officials relented in the case of Max Soffar, who is still on death row.
Florida does not allow a chaplain in the execution chamber, but the state does allow an inmate to choose clergy to be among witnesses. The sensitivity of the matter was evident during Martin Grossman’s execution in February. Rabbi Menachem Katz, who had been Grossman’s spiritual adviser for 15 years, was allowed to be with Grossman on the afternoon before his execution. But Katz said he could only be with him as long as non-Jewish chaplains employed by the state were present.
“I felt we needed privacy, and they refused,” Katz said.
Friedman said that’s an example of how prison systems could be more sensitive.
“Sometimes, it’s the nature of the beast that security trumps humanity,” Friedman said.
The proposed change in Maryland was included as part of protocols submitted in May to a legislative panel for review. The administration of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Catholic who opposes the death penalty, proposed the changes reluctantly, after previous attempts to repeal capital punishment failed in the General Assembly.
Maryland’s death penalty has been on hold since December 2006, when the state’s highest court ruled lethal injection protocols weren’t reviewed by the legislative panel as required. It’s unclear when executions could resume in Maryland, where the co-chairs of the legislative panel also oppose capital punishment.
Maryland began allowing a prison chaplain to be in the chamber in 2004, when the state carried out its first death sentence in six years. Randy Watson, assistant correction commissioner, said the change was made after corrections officials studied practices in Oklahoma, where a prison chaplain was allowed in the chamber at the time.
“They just felt that that helped keep the condemned inmate calm, and it did not detract from the process,” Watson said.
Maryland corrections officials decided to propose allowing the inmate to choose the clergy member when the department submitted the new protocols to comply with the 2006 court ruling. Corrections officials no longer saw the need of any restriction, as long as the commissioner approved the person after a background check and the choice didn’t compromise security, Watson said.
A prison chaplain, a Catholic priest, was inside the chamber during the 2004 execution of Steven Oken, who was Jewish. One of two rabbis allowed to be witnesses told reporters just before Oken was put to death that he had met with Oken for about 90 minutes, but the rabbi expressed disappointment that he was not allowed to be by Oken’s side at the very end.
Watson said that while a Jewish chaplain who worked for the state was available, Oken had requested the priest to be present.
Mississippi is one of the few states that allows an inmate to choose up to two clergy members who can be in the execution chamber. Kansas allows an inmate to choose a spiritual adviser to be in the execution chamber, but Kansas has not had an execution since capital punishment was put back on the books there in 1994.
In Texas, a prison chaplain is present in the chamber. The clergyman normally rests a hand on the inmate’s leg to offer comfort and prays while the lethal injection is taking place. A spiritual adviser chosen by the inmate can watch through a window with other witnesses.
But most states do not allow clergy into the execution chamber.
In Virginia, for example, chosen clergy can be with an inmate in a holding cell until the execution, but they can only observe the procedure from a witness booth. Pennsylvania allows clergy to walk with an inmate to the execution chamber before going to the area reserved for witnesses.