Death row inmate loses lawsuit over Sabbath rights

Man claimed it was a burden to pray in small, secure cell

By Brett Barrouquere
Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — If Kentucky’s lone Jewish inmate on death row wants to mark the Sabbath, he’ll have to do it from a cell in a secure unit for now.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals on Friday ruled that prison officials are not violating the religious freedom rights of 40-year-old William Harry Meece, who is awaiting execution for the slayings of three people in Adair County in 1993, by having him pray in his cell.

Judge Laurence VanMeter, writing for a three-judge panel, concluded that prison policy correctly prevents Meece from being allowed into the Institutional Religious Center at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville because of security concerns. As a death row inmate, Meece lives in the Special Security Unit near the other condemned inmates and apart from the other 800-plus inmates.

Meece sued the Kentucky Department of Corrections in 2007, accusing the agency of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits burdens on the ability of prisoners to worship as they please.

Meece had claimed that it was a burden to pray in his small cell and that prison policies kept him from covering up the toilet or praying near it. The judge disagreed, saying Meece can pray near a toilet and cover it with a sheet.

The inmate also claimed he should be allowed to go to the prison’s chapel on his own or with other Jewish inmates on the Sabbath, which goes from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. He is currently allowed to join Roman Catholics on death row for Thursday services and Protestants on Sunday.

Meece, in letters to The Associated Press before the ruling came down, railed against the Corrections Department policy saying “I’ll die or get killed” rather than follow the state’s rules.
“Aren’t you proud of your tax dollars at work?” Meece wrote. “Emotionally, it deprives even that basic spiritual recharge. And I fight on.”

Prosecutors say Meece shot and killed Joseph and Elizabeth Wellnitz and their son, Dennis, at their home on Feb. 26, 2003, in Columbia in Adair County.