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Alabama cancels execution after court requires pastor

Willie B. Smith III | Source: Alabama Dept. of Corrections

An Alabama inmate has won a reprieve from a scheduled lethal injection after the U.S. Supreme Court said the state could not proceed without his pastor in the death chamber.

Posted: Feb 12, 2021 12:41 PM

ATMORE, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama inmate on Thursday won a reprieve from a scheduled lethal injection after the U.S. Supreme Court said the state must allow his personal pastor in the death chamber.

The lethal injection of Willie B. Smith III was called off by Alabama after justices maintained an injunction issued by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saying he could not be executed without his pastor present in chamber. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Samantha Rose said the execution would not proceed given the ruling. Alabama has maintained that non-prison staff should not be in the room for security reasons.

“Willie Smith is sentenced to death, and his last wish is to have his pastor with him as he dies,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in an opinion joined by three other justices, including Amy Coney Barrett.

“Alabama has not carried its burden of showing that the exclusion of all clergy members from the execution chamber is necessary to ensure prison security. So the State cannot now execute Smith without his pastor present, to ease what Smith calls the ‘transition between the worlds of the living and the dead.’” Kagan wrote.

The case was the latest in a series of legal fights over personal spiritual advisers at executions. The court in 2019 halted the execution of a Texas inmate who claimed his religious freedom would be violated if his Buddhist spiritual adviser wasn’t allowed to be in the death chamber with him.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested in a dissent that states that want to avoid litigation on the issue “should figure out a way to allow spiritual advisors into the execution room, as other states and the federal government have done.”

Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch did not disclose how they voted, but both would have had to side with Kavanaugh, John Roberts, and Clarence Thomas for the execution to proceed.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall did not immediately comment on the decision to cancel the lethal injection. After the execution was canceled Smith was taken from a holding cell by the execution chamber back to his cell on death row, a prison spokeswoman said.

Smith, 51, had been scheduled to receive a lethal injection at a south Alabama prison for the 1991 murder of 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson in Birmingham.

Smith had sought to allow his spiritual adviser, Pastor Robert Wiley, in the execution chamber, something the state does not allow.

“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.

In the past, Alabama routinely put a Christian prison chaplain, who was employed by the state, in the execution chamber to pray with an inmate if requested. The state stopped that practice after a Muslim inmate asked to have an imam present. The prison system, which did not have Muslim cleric on staff, said non-prison staff would not be allowed in the chamber.

Prosecutors said Smith abducted Johnson at gunpoint from an ATM, stole $80 from her and then took her to a cemetery where he shot her in the back of the head. The victim was the sister of a police detective.

“Over twenty-nine years ago, Smith gunned down a woman whose only crime was stopping to use the ATM,” attorneys for the state wrote in court documents seeking to let the lethal injection proceed.

Justices vacated another stay issued by the 11th Circuit related to Smith’s intellectual capacity. His lawyers argued the state failed to give the man, who has an IQ below 75, required assistance with forms affecting the timing of his execution. The Alabama attorney general’s office in court filings disputed that Smith is disabled and called it a last-minute delaying maneuver.

If the execution had gone forward, it would have been the first by a state in 2021 and one of the few at the state level since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, no state has had an execution since last July 8.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 497790

Reported Deaths: 9917
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34102530
DeSoto31839398
Hinds31837622
Jackson24314377
Rankin21881388
Lee15427234
Madison14525279
Jones13772241
Forrest13412250
Lauderdale11937314
Lowndes10934185
Lamar10470135
Pearl River9431237
Lafayette8454138
Hancock7697126
Washington7365156
Oktibbeha7111129
Monroe6727174
Warren6642176
Pontotoc6609101
Neshoba6606205
Panola6460131
Marshall6386132
Bolivar6266145
Union596094
Pike5784152
Alcorn5633101
Lincoln5417134
George491879
Scott470998
Tippah465381
Prentiss464181
Leflore4627143
Itawamba4596104
Adams4570119
Tate4546109
Copiah445191
Simpson4421116
Wayne438572
Yazoo438586
Covington427394
Marion4216107
Sunflower4215104
Coahoma4115104
Leake407787
Newton380879
Grenada3692108
Stone358464
Tishomingo356391
Attala330289
Jasper328265
Winston313191
Clay306375
Chickasaw296767
Clarke290694
Calhoun277945
Holmes266987
Smith262550
Yalobusha232647
Tallahatchie225251
Walthall217763
Greene215548
Lawrence211140
Perry204755
Amite203954
Webster201645
Noxubee185340
Montgomery179056
Jefferson Davis170642
Carroll167438
Tunica158639
Benton147438
Kemper141241
Choctaw133026
Claiborne131237
Humphreys129038
Franklin119128
Quitman106227
Wilkinson104539
Jefferson94234
Sharkey64020
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 812694

Reported Deaths: 15142
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1139601904
Mobile721751321
Madison51923685
Shelby37240339
Baldwin37044538
Tuscaloosa34902599
Montgomery33919719
Lee23122240
Calhoun22125469
Morgan20620370
Etowah19739496
Marshall18238298
Houston17288405
St. Clair15897337
Cullman15297290
Limestone15178198
Elmore15038284
Lauderdale14125294
Talladega13692271
DeKalb12554258
Walker11069364
Blount10081174
Autauga9883146
Jackson9776177
Coffee9176188
Dale8856180
Colbert8781200
Tallapoosa7032195
Escambia6725127
Covington6672179
Chilton6580160
Russell624758
Franklin5927105
Chambers5558142
Marion4952126
Dallas4854199
Clarke472681
Pike4716105
Geneva4558126
Winston4461101
Lawrence4252117
Bibb421686
Barbour355374
Marengo333989
Monroe329962
Randolph324763
Butler323994
Pickens313581
Henry310565
Hale308787
Cherokee299457
Fayette290579
Washington250851
Cleburne245958
Crenshaw243375
Clay239767
Macon230662
Lamar215446
Conecuh185351
Coosa177738
Lowndes173161
Wilcox167038
Bullock151744
Perry138040
Sumter131138
Greene125544
Choctaw86627
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