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Alabama execution cancelled after injunction maintained

Kim Chandler
Associated Press

Atmore, Ala. — An Alabama inmate on Thursday 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.

The lethal injection of Willie B. Smith III was called off after the U.S. Supreme Court maintained an injunction issued by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saying he could be executed without his pastor present in chamber. The state prison system 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.

This undated photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows Willie B. Smith III. The Alabama Supreme Court on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020 ordered that 51-year-old Willie B. Smith III be put to death on Feb. 11 for the shotgun slaying of Sharma Ruth Johnson.

“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,’” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the order maintaining injunction.

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

The Alabama attorney general was expected to issue a statement on the decision.

Smith had sought to allow his personal pastor 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 brought in a Christian prison chaplain who would pray with an inmate if requested. The state stopped that practice after Muslim inmates asked to have an imam present, saying it would no longer allow non-prison staff 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.

Smith took no offered meals on Thursday but did have a soda and a bag of potato chips, Alabama Department of Corrections spokeswoman Samantha Rose said. He was visited by his wife, mother, sister and stepfather as well as an investigator for his attorney.

Smith’s attorneys also argued that an execution would be a super-spreader event. Some COVID-19 cases have been linked to recent federal executions.

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