Inmate sues South Dakota over religious items

SIOUX FALLS — An inmate serving life in prison for a torture murder that sent two co-defendants to death row wants a federal judge to approve a toy sword and other items and privileges for the practice of an ancient European religion.

Darrell Hoadley of Lead, who was convicted of murder for his part in the 2000 slaying of Chester Allan Poage near Spearfish, filed the handwritten complaint in U.S. District Court. He lists himself in court documents as counsel elder of the Asatru religious group.

The state has not yet filed an answer to the complaint. The Department of Corrections and state prosecutors do not comment on pending litigation. No court date is scheduled.

Hoadley said he’s suing prison staff because they have denied some of his requests while members of other religions have gotten similar privileges.

Defendants include Warden Doug Weber, Associate Warden Dennis Block and Cultural Activities Coordinator Jennifer Wagner.

Hoadley’s lawsuit asks for 23 ritual items, 10 reference materials and other requests, including visits from people who also practice the religion.

Many of the items already are included in a Corrections Department list of property that inmates may have in their cell or in the religious storage area.

Among those items: Rune cards and tiles, altar and cloth, wooden wand, ritual drinking horn, apple juice, blessing bowl, candles and holders, feather fan, wooden hammer, drum, abalone shell, evergreen twig and dragon’s blood resin, a type of incense.

Other requests include an outside area with a tree and a sauna, special foods and privileges for religious holidays and a time once a week for studies, in addition to the one already allowed for rituals.

“This is no different than any of the various Bible studies, Hebrew lessons, Arabic lessons, etc. that have been or are approved,” Hoadley wrote.

In the administrative comments section of some of the requests, prison officials cite a legal settlement on the Asatru religion and another case that’s pending as reasons for why some things are allowed while others are not.

Hoadley said the Asatru religious group would make or buy the items themselves or ask for donations. Several times in the court documents he acknowledged security and safety issues.

A passage from Hoadley’s handwritten document states: “Obviously no sane person (would) request a real sword in the pennitentiary. Therefor I am requesting to be allowed to purchase a small (no more than 2 feet) plastic or costume sword to be kept in the asatru locker. A cardboard sword is approved but it gets wet or bent or mirraculously disappears from the Asatru locker and has to be replaced.”

Asatru has more than 10,000 members in the United States but is not organized, so an exact number is hard to come by, said Mike Murray, who said he has practiced the religion for more than 40 years and runs the site

“There’s no supreme religious leader. It’s more or less on a personal level, even though there are groups that gather and call themselves kindreds. And I know there are hundreds of them,” he said in a telephone interview from his home near Phoenix.

According to the Web site, Asatru is “the original, pre-Christian religion of the peoples of northern Europe” whose members follow the gods and goddesses of Asatru and “believe in an underlying, all-pervading divine energy or essence which is generally hidden from us, and which is beyond our immediate understanding.”

Some religious experts consider it pagan religion that can be interpreted as encouraging violence and is becoming popular among prison inmates, one of whom was executed last summer in Virginia for killing a fellow prisoner at the foot of an altar.

Hoadley and the two others beat and stabbed Poage, tried to drown him by stepping on his neck and finally ended his life after 2 1/2 hours by dropping basketball-sized rocks on his head.

Though Hoadley opted to stand trial for Poage’s killing, the other co-defendants pleaded guilty and were sentenced to death. Briley Piper of Anchorage, Alaska, is appealing the sentence. Elijah Page of Athens, Texas, has ended his appeals and is scheduled to be executed the week of July 9.

Some followers of Asatru, which often is referred to as Odinism, say the religion is misunderstood and that the most adherent inmates do not use it to further violent agendas. Religious leaders and prison experts have said they believe its roots in Viking mythology attract prisoners seeking power, protection and unity.

No national statistics are kept on how many inmates follow Asatru. But experts say its popularity enjoyed a boost from the Supreme Court, which sided with an Asatru inmate in 2005 by upholding a federal law requiring state prisons to accommodate prisoners’ religious affiliations.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday February 19, 2007.
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