MONTGOMERY, Ala. – An appellate court has stayed the lethal injection of an Alabama inmate to consider claims that the state failed to give the man, who has an IQ below 75, required assistance with forms impacting the timing of his execution.
The 11th U.S. Court of Appeals issued the stay Wednesday night about 21 hours before Willie B. Smith was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection. The court stayed the execution to give a week to consider his claims. 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.
Alabama is appealing both rulings to try to allow the execution to go forward.
Smith III, 51, was scheduled to be put to death Thursday night at a south Alabama prison for the 1991 shotgun slaying of Sharma Ruth Johnson.
Prosecutors said Smith abducted Johnson at gunpoint in October 1991 as she waited to use an ATM in Birmingham, forced her into the trunk of a car and withdrew $80 using her bank card. Prosecutors said he then took her to a cemetery where he shot her in the back of the head and later returned to set the car on fire.
If the execution goes forward, it would be the first death sentence carried out by a state in 2021 and one of the few at the state level since the COVID-19 pandemic began. It would be the first execution by a state since July 8, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
After Alabama authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, the state gave death row inmates a brief window to select that as their execution method. Attorneys argued that the state did little to communicate that to inmates and that the prison system was required under the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide accommodation to intellectually disabled inmates when they handed out a form.
The Alabama attorney general's office is disputing that Smith is disabled and called the argument an attempt to delay the execution.
The appellate court on Wednesday also reversed a district judge and said the state can't execute Smith unless he has his personal pastor in the chamber.
Alabama previously placed a prison chaplain in the chamber who would pray with the inmate if requested. The state stopped that practice after Muslim inmates asked to have an imam present. The prison system said it would not allow non-prison staff in the chamber and ended the practice of having the prison chaplain present, which undercut claims of unequal treatment between inmates of different faiths.
A jury convicted Smith in 1992 in the death of Johnson, who was the sister of a Birmingham police detective.
Appellate courts rejected Smith’s claims on appeal, including that his lawyers provided ineffective assistance at trial and that he should not be executed because he is intellectually disabled. Court records indicate a defense team expert estimated his IQ at 64 while a prosecution expert pegged it at 72.
The Department of Corrections has changed some procedures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The prison system is limiting media witnesses to the execution to a single reporter, a representative from The Associated Press.
This story has been corrected to show that the order was issued late Wednesday, not early Thursday.