Willie B. Smith is on death row for his 1991 conviction for the kidnapping, robbery, and murder of 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson. The Alabama Corrections Department hides the label
Alabama Department of Corrections
The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the proposed execution of an Alabama death row inmate late Thursday night after judges upheld a lower court ruling requiring Willie B. Smith III’s personal pastor to be in the chamber with him rather than him the fatal injection was given.
The decision was made the same night Smith was originally scheduled to be killed in the William C. Holman Correctional Facility.
In the ruling, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the Alabama Justice Department’s policy of banning clergymen from the execution chamber for security reasons puts a strain on Smith’s religious freedoms. She said his application was protected by the Law on Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons.
“Alabama acknowledges that Smith’s request was ‘based on a religious belief rather than any other motivation,'” Kagan wrote. “So Alabama’s policy has to stand up to a rigorous test. And it can’t.”
Kagan, along with Judges Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett, denied the Alabama Attorney General’s motion to overturn the 11th Court of Appeal decision on Wednesday.
Judges Brett Kavanaugh and John Roberts wrote the dissenting opinion. The number of votes was not listed.
Smith’s attorneys had also asked for his execution to be halted on claims that the state had failed to provide adequate assistance to the man they say had a below-average IQ in completing his execution forms.
While the appeals court issued a temporary stay for judges Wednesday night to review Smith’s claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Supreme Court cleaned up that ruling on Thursday evening.
Smith was convicted in 1991 of the kidnapping, robbery and murder of the then 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson.
Prosecutors said Smith abducted Johnson from an ATM at gunpoint, stole her money, and then took her to a cemetery where he shot her in the back of the head.
Smith would be the first person to be executed by a state in 2021. The last time an inmate was executed by any state was July 8, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
State officials denied Smith’s request for his pastor, citing security concerns and a policy prohibiting non-prison officials from being in the room. In 2019, the state changed its rules so that religious officials were not allowed.
The attorney general’s office said in court documents that Smith’s pastor witnessed the execution in an adjoining room.
Attorneys for Smith claimed it still violated his religious freedoms.
Supreme Court justices have grappled with the same legal issue at the heart of the Smith case for the past two years, but decided very differently in each situation.
In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled by 5-4 votes that Alabama Domineque Hakim Ray, a Muslim man convicted of murder, could be executed.
The appeals court temporarily blocked the execution because the state prohibited the man from having a Muslim imam by his side in the death chamber. Alabama said only the prison’s Christian minister would be allowed in.
A month later, judges granted Patrick Henry Murphy, a Buddhist prisoner in Texas who had been denied a Buddhist religious adviser at his side in the death chamber, an eleven hour freeze on a 7-2 vote.
According to the conservative majority in the court, the difference between the two cases was that the Muslim prisoner waited too long to ask for an imam.
It is unclear what Alabama’s next move will be in the Smith case.