Update: An Alabama man who avoided execution in February was put to death Thursday for the 1991 killing of a woman who was abducted during a robbery and then shot in a cemetery. Willie B. Smith III, 52, received a lethal injection at a prison in southwest Alabama, the AP reports. He was pronounced dead at 9:47pm local time. The execution went forward after the US Supreme Court rejected a request for a stay by his lawyers, who had argued the execution should be blocked on grounds that Smith had an intellectual disability meriting further scrutiny by the courts. Our original story from Feb. 12 follows:
An Alabama inmate on Thursday won a reprieve from a scheduled lethal injection after the US Supreme Court said the state could not proceed without his pastor in the death chamber. The state prison system said the execution of Willie B. Smith III, planned for Thursday evening, would not proceed given the ruling, the AP reports. Alabama has maintained that non-prison staff should not be in the room for security reasons. “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. "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. 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. (More on the crime here.)