Court Battles

Supreme Court grants Alabama death row inmate’s request for pastor

Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with an Alabama death row inmate who requested that his pastor be present during his execution. 

The justices’ order effectively put on hold the lethal injection of Willie Smith III until Alabama permits Smith’s spiritual adviser to be alongside him in the execution chamber.

Justice Elena Kagan, one of the court’s more liberal members, wrote that the Alabama statute at issue — which barred all clergy members from the execution chamber over security concerns — violated constitutional religious freedoms.

“The law guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference, including at the moment the State puts him to death,” Kagan wrote.

Kagan’s opinion was joined by fellow liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. At least two of the court’s more conservative members, including Justice Amy Coney Barrett, also joined, but a precise voting breakdown was not disclosed. 

Three of the court’s more conservative justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh — made clear they would have permitted the execution to go forward. 

Smith, 51, was sentenced to death for the 1991 abduction, robbery and murder of a 22-year-old woman in Birmingham, Ala. 

Diana Verm, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the Thursday ruling was a victory for religious freedom. Verm filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Becket Fund in support of Smith.

“We explained to the court that Alabama knew that it could accommodate Smith’s religious beliefs, and in this case the Supreme Court ensured that they had to do that,” she said. “Prisoners should be allowed to make peace with their maker in their final moments and we’re glad that the Supreme Court has ensured that can happen in this case.” 

Tags Alabama Amy Coney Barrett Brett Kavanaugh Clarence Thomas death penalty Elena Kagan Sonia Sotomayor Stephen Breyer Supreme Court

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