By Amy Howe
on February 12, 2021
at 2:35 a.m.
The court issued a ruling on Alabama’s attempt to execute Willie Smith III at midnight Thursday. (Katie Barlow)
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday night that the execution of an Alabama man must be put on hold unless the state allows the man, Willie Smith III, to have his pastor by his side in the execution chamber. The judges denied a state motion to overturn a U.S. Court of Appeals decision for the 11th Circuit that prevented the state from executing Smith.
The judges also overturned a special trial initiated by the 11th Circle and paved the way for the state to execute Smith if he agrees to be accompanied to the execution chamber by his pastor. However, shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, the Associated Press reported that Alabama had canceled Smith’s execution, which was due to come under an enforcement warrant that set Thursday as the execution date. The Supreme Court issued its decision around midnight Eastern time – or around 11 p.m. local time, just an hour before the warrant expired.
Smith, 51, was sentenced to death in 1991 for the robbery and death of 22-year-old Sharma Johnson in Birmingham, Alabama.
Four judges – Judges Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Amy Coney Barrett – all signed a statement written by Kagan that the state had failed to adequately explain its policy of excluding spiritual advisors from the execution chamber. Three judges – Chief Justice John Roberts and Judges Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh – said they allowed the execution in accordance with Alabama’s policy. The remaining two judges – Judges Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – did not publicly disclose how they voted, but at least one of them must have voted with the three Liberal judges and Barrett to prevent the execution without a spiritual adviser he follows.
Until 2019, the Department of Corrections in Alabama allowed a state-employed Christian chaplain to be in the execution chamber during lethal injections, but it did not allow outside spiritual counselors. It changed that policy and banned all spiritual advisors from the execution chamber in response to a March 2019 Supreme Court ruling in a March 2019 ruling as Murphy v. Collier known death penalty appeals. In this case, a Buddhist inmate questioned Texas’s policy of allowing Christian and Muslim spiritual counselors into the execution chamber while expelling clergy of other religions, arguing that the policy discriminated against him. The court put the Buddhist inmate’s execution on hold, and Kavanaugh wrote a separate statement that a solution would be for the state to exclude all spiritual advisors from the execution chamber. Both Texas and Alabama have adopted this policy.
Smith went to federal court to question the state’s new policy, arguing that the total ban on spiritual counselors in the chamber violated both the constitution’s guarantees of free religion and a federal law that the protects inmates’ religious rights. On Wednesday, the 11th Circle joined Smith and prevented the state from executing him unless his personal spiritual advisor, a Christian pastor, could join him in the Chamber.
The state asked the Supreme Court to intervene Thursday morning. It was emphasized that while inmates have their spiritual advisors with them until they can go into the chamber and see them in the inspection room, the ability to expel everyone except correction officers from the execution chamber is essential to “the safety and solemnity of the chamber to true execution. “And in any case, the state added, Smith’s challenge came too late – almost two years after the state changed its policy.
Smith urged the judges to uphold the 11th Circle decision. He dismissed the state’s security concerns as exaggerated, citing a series of executions recently carried out by the federal prison bureau where inmates were allowed to take their personal spiritual advisers with them to the execution chamber without incident. Smith also denied the state’s suggestion that his challenge was out of date, noting that it was filed “nearly 60 days” before his scheduled execution, much earlier than the case of the Buddhist inmate, whose execution the Supreme Court suspended in 2019 .
It took the state five votes to overturn the 11th Circle decision and continue the execution in the execution chamber without Smith’s pastor.
Thomas stated, without saying more, that he had granted the state’s request. Roberts and Kavanaugh would also have allowed the execution without Smith’s pastor in the chamber. In a brief statement deviating from the state’s denial of the motion, Kavanaugh (along with Roberts) stated that, in his view, the state’s policy of excluding all spiritual advisors from the Chamber “serves the overriding interests of the state, security to ensure and solemnity of the execution room. “Given the court’s decision in Smith’s case and a similar case outside of Texas, Kavanaugh said, states should probably” find a way to allow clergymen into the execution room, as other states and the federal government have “.
Kagan wrote a statement consistent with the decision to maintain the 11th Circle decision on the spiritual advisor. Breyer, Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett, the newest judge on the court, shared this opinion. Kagan stated that any restriction on Smith’s religious rights must pass a rigorous test – which Alabama’s policies cannot. Kagan acknowledged that prison security is an overriding concern, but stressed that the federal government and some states have allowed unrelated clergymen to attend executions without security concerns. The state could “take any number of measures to ensure that a clergyman acts responsibly during an execution,” she suggested, including background checks or requiring good behavior. But it cannot “simply assume that every member of the clergy will not be trustworthy – or, in other words, that only the toughest constraint can work.”
Alito and Gorsuch did not provide how they voted, but the public votes of the other seven judges (with four approving the decision to keep the 11th Circle decision and three others) indicated that either Alito or Gorsuch (or both) voted to uphold the decision of the lower court. If both had voted to overturn the lower court decision, there would have been five votes in favor.
In a separate ruling, the judges overturned a suspension of execution initiated by the 11th Circle on Wednesday to allow more time to review Smith’s claim that the state had given him help reviewing a document because of his intellectual disability that would have allowed him to choose an alternate method of execution.
The state had asked the judges to revoke the residency, telling them that, as Smith claims as a spiritual advisor, it had been filed too late. In addition, Smith has not shown that the state was aware of his intellectual disability or that he needed help filling out the form, which would have enabled him to opt for execution by deadly nitrogen rather than a controversial three-fatal injection protocol .
Smith’s attorneys, who told judges that Smith’s IQ was between 64 and 75, alleged that correctional officers had long known he was mentally impaired and should therefore have helped him understand and complete “a highly complex and complicated form” of execution from deadly nitrogen. When officials failed to do so, Smith’s attorneys were denied the opportunity to opt out of a protocol “continually challenged as a cause of pain and suffering”.
This article was originally published by Howe on the Court.