Court halts Alabama execution

Court halts Alabama execution
© Alabama Department of Corrections

An appellate court delayed the lethal injection of an Alabama inmate convicted of killing a woman in 1991 due to concerns about whether the state needed to provide him with required assistance with forms dealing with his execution.

In the Wednesday night ruling, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay halting the execution, scheduled for Thursday night, for a week while it considers Willie B. Smith’s claims, The Associated Press reported.

Smith, 51, alleges he is intellectually disabled, meaning the state is required to provide accommodation to help him fill out forms under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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He and his attorneys argue that when Alabama permitted death row prisoners to choose their execution method after nitrogen hypoxia was approved, the state did not give him that mandatory help. 

The appellate court also ruled that the state cannot execute Smith unless it allows his pastor in the chamber, according to court documents. Alabama previously allowed a prison chaplain to pray with the death row inmate if requested, but the state ended the practice once Muslim prisoners asked for an imam. 

“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, according to the AP.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did dismiss Smith’s arguments that his lawyers did not provide effective assistance during his trial and that he should not be executed because he is intellectually disabled. The defense team cited an expert in court documents pinning his IQ at 64, while the prosecution’s expert said it was 72. 

The state appealed both rulings to the Supreme Court on Thursday, claiming Smith is not intellectually disabled and waited to file a motion for stay a week before his execution, which he knew was scheduled since Dec. 1.

"Smith gave no good reason for his delay; rather, when pressed by the district court, his attorney admitted that the late-breaking stay motion was a 'last resort,'" one of the appeals states.

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The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) also said that it only allows staff in the execution chamber and "not family" and not legal counsel."

The state said it permits a "spiritual adviser" to meet with the inmate "immediately before" entering the chamber and to be present in the viewing room, which is separated by two-way security glass.

"But in the interest of preserving the security and solemnity of the execution, the ADOC will not permit non-employees into the chamber itself," the department said. 

Smith was convicted of shooting and killing Sharma Ruth Johnson, 22, in 1991 in a Birmingham cemetery after kidnapping her at gunpoint from an ATM and stealing $80 from her. 

If Smith’s execution is carried out, it would be the first state execution of 2021 and one of the few state executions since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the U.S., according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Updated at 1:03 p.m.