March 4, 2021

Court allows condemned inmate to have his pastor at execution

An appellate court has ruled that Alabama cannot execute an inmate Thursday unless the state allows his pastor in the chamber while he receives a lethal injection.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a district judge and said Willie B. Smith should be allowed to have his personal pastor in the chamber.

“Mr. Smith pled that he believes that the point of transition between life and death is important, and that having his spiritual advisor physically present at that moment is integral to his faith,” Smith’s lawyers wrote in court documents.

It is anticipated that the state will appeal the ruling.

Alabama previously placed a prison chaplain in the chamber who would pray with the inmate if requested. The state stopped that practice after Muslim inmates asked to have an imam present. The prison system said it would not allow non-prison staff in the chamber and ended the practice of having the prison chaplain present, which undercut claims of unequal treatment between inmates of different faiths.

Smith III, 51, is scheduled to be put to death Thursday night at a south Alabama prison for the 1991 shotgun slaying of Sharma Ruth Johnson.

If the execution goes forward, it would be the first death sentence carried out by a state in 2021 and one of the few at the state level since the COVID-19 pandemic began. It would be the first execution by a state since July 8, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Smith’s attorneys have sought a stay arguing that the pandemic and the prohibition on in-person prison visits had made it difficult for them to adequately represent him. Attorneys also argued the execution would be a super-spreader event. Some COVID-19 cases have been linked to recent federal executions.

The Alabama attorney general’s office wrote in court filings that the state is no longer under a stay-at-home order and said carrying out executions is one of the functions of state government.

“The State is open, and its agencies are expected to function. One of the State’s functions is to ensure that justice is carried out in a timely fashion by performing executions of those inmates on death row who have exhausted their appeals,” the Alabama attorney general’s office wrote.

The Department of Corrections has changed some procedures in the face of the pandemic. The prison system is limiting media witnesses to the execution to a single reporter, a representative from The Associated Press.

Prosecutors said Smith abducted Johnson at gunpoint in October 1991 as she waited to use an ATM in Birmingham, forced her into the trunk of a car and withdrew $80 using her bank card. Prosecutors said he then took her to a cemetery where he shot her in the back of the head and later returned to set the car on fire.

A jury convicted Smith in 1992 in the death of Johnson, who was the sister of a Birmingham police detective.

Appellate courts rejected Smith’s claims on appeal, including that his lawyers provided ineffective assistance at trial and that he should not be executed because he is intellectually disabled. Court records indicate a defense team expert estimated his IQ at 64 while a prosecution expert pegged it at 72.