Alabama executes man after Supreme Court blocked it earlier this year

·5 min read

After the Supreme Court blocked an Alabama man's execution in February, the state executed him by lethal injection Thursday evening despite his lawyer's claims that he was intellectually disabled and had an IQ of 64.

The state scheduled Willie B. Smith III, 52, to receive a lethal injection at 6 p.m. CT for the 1991 kidnapping and murder of 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson. The state ultimately executed him at 9:47 p.m. after the Supreme Court declined to consider a last-minute appeal — almost exactly three decades after Johnson's murder.

The Supreme Court previously blocked Alabama's last attempt to execute Smith in February because the state would not allow him to have his pastor at his side.

“In dealing with this unimaginable and tragic loss, her loved ones have endured years of Mr. Smith attempting to avoid due punishment and then a delayed execution earlier this year. Mr. Smith had more time on death row than Ms. Johnson had in this life," Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement after his execution. "The evidence in this case was overwhelming, and justice has been rightfully served."

Prosecutors said Smith wielded a gun when he kidnapped Johnson, a police detective's sister, while she removed money from an ATM, according to The Associated Press. They said he stole $80 from her and took her to a cemetery where he shot her in the back of the head.

Image: Willie B. Smith III. (Alabama Department of Corrections / via AFP - Getty Images file)
Image: Willie B. Smith III. (Alabama Department of Corrections / via AFP - Getty Images file)

Smith did not have any last words before the execution, but the state allowed a personal pastor to accompany a condemned inmate in the room for the first time. It appeared Pastor Robert Wiley prayed with Smith prior to the procedure, according to the Associated Press, and one of his attorneys held up a fist in the witness room in an apparent signal of support.

Smith's lawyers, in the few hours remaining before his execution, attempted to push forward a series of legal arguments to buy more time for him. Much of it was dependent on their claims regarding his disability.

Last week, the federal public defender's office filed a lawsuit on Smith's behalf that argued he was not given assistance in understanding a form given to death row inmates in 2018 that allowed them to adopt nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method.

The state allowed inmates 30 days to decide whether they preferred the method after Alabama passed a law adopting nitrogen hypoxia as an execution procedure, though they have not fully developed a protocol for it.

Smith's lawyers contended, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, he should have been given guidance regarding the form. Because he had not received any information regarding it, Smith never returned the form to authorities at the prison. Had he adopted the method, as many of his fellow death row prisoners did, he would not be eligible for execution.

"Because Smith suffers from 'significant cognitive deficiencies,' he alleges he was unable to 'enjoy the benefit of the statute and the election form' without being aided with comprehension of the form and its contents," court documents says.

An audiology and speech science professor at University of Northern Colorado found the form to be at the 11th grade level, according to court documents. She found Smith's literacy level to fall between the third and fourth grade when she evaluated him.

A federal judge ruled Sunday that putting Smith to death by lethal injection did not violate his rights under the ADA, but his lawyers have since filed a motion in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in hopes of receiving a stay of execution so they can appeal the decision.

The Alabama attorney general’s office rejects that Smith is disabled and has argued the claims are a stall tactic.

Smith's intellectual disability has long been at the center of his lawyer's arguments, however, and court documents show that there is support for the claims.

While the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing disabled individuals was unconstitutional and a violation of the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided in 2019 that this ruling could not be retroactively applied to Smith despite appearing to agree.

"The family of Sharma Johnson has had to wait 29 years, 11 months, and 25 days to see the sentence of Sharma's murderer be carried out," state Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement after Smith's execution. "Finally, the cruel and unusual punishment that has been inflicted upon them — a decades long denial of justice — has come to an end."

But those are not the only legal concerns or ramifications that Smith's execution could have.

Robert Dunham, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the most significant issue is that Smith did suffer from an intellectual disability and should be constitutionally protected from facing the death penalty.

The other issue Dunham identified is that the state and Smith came to an agreement regarding his ability to have a religious adviser in the death chamber to administer religious rites, touch him, pray out loud and remain in the room until the execution is completed. There is an upcoming Supreme Court case Nov. 1 between Texas and John Ramirez, a Texas death row prisoner who is only allowed to have his religious adviser in the room but without speaking or prayer.

"The fact that Alabama is able to carry out the execution demonstrates clearly that Texas' position has no legal merit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act," he said.

The final concern is regarding an ongoing issue in Alabama where the number of witnesses allowed in the death chamber is limited because of the pandemic. While the state has changed its mind regarding this procedure after it only allowed one media witness at Smith's last scheduled execution, Dunham said it raises concerns about transparency.

"Initially, they were saying it wasn't safe enough for Willie Smith, to have the full complement of witnesses that he's legally entitled to have," he said. "They've ultimately agreed that he can have his six witnesses, but this is part of the ongoing lack of transparency around executions in Alabama."

Smith's is the eighth execution in the United States in 2021, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. There are four more executions scheduled this year, three in Oklahoma and one in Texas.

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