Alabama is seeking to carry out what would be this year's first execution by a state, putting to death a 51-year-old inmate convicted of the shotgun slaying of a police detective's sister decades ago.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay blocking the Thursday night execution, but the state is expected to appeal.
Willie B. Smith III was scheduled to receive a lethal injection at a south Alabama prison for the 1991 murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson in Birmingham. Prosecutors said Smith abducted Johnson, 22, 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.
Judges on the 11th Circuit stayed the lethal injection to give time to consider defense claims that the state failed to give the man, who has an IQ of below 75, required assistance with forms impacting 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.
The court also issued a separate ruling on religious grounds saying Alabama cannot execute Smith unless they allow his personal pastor in the execution chamber.
If the execution goes forward, it would be 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.
A jury convicted Smith in 1992 in the death of Johnson, the sister of a Birmingham police detective.
Appellate courts rejected Smith’s claims that his trial lawyers provided ineffective assistance and that he should not be executed because he is intellectually disabled. A defense team expert estimated his IQ at 64 while a prosecution expert placed it at 72.
Last-minute court filings centered on concerns about the coronavirus outbreak and Smith's request 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.
The 11th U.S. Court of Appeals on Wednesday reversed a district judge and said Smith should be allowed to have his pastor with him.
In the past, Alabama routinely brought in a 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. The change undercut claims of unequal treatment between inmates of different faiths.
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.
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