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Supreme Court rules Alabama may not execute inmate without his pastor present

3 years 4 months 1 week ago Friday, February 12 2021 Feb 12, 2021 February 12, 2021 7:59 AM February 12, 2021 in News
Source: CNN
Willie B. Smith III Image: Alabama Department of Corrections

The lethal injection of an Alabama inmate was called off on Thursday (Feb. 11) after the U.S. Supreme Court maintained an injunction issued by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saying the man in question could not be executed without his pastor present in the death chamber.

CNN reports that Willie B. Smith III, an inmate scheduled to receive a lethal injection at a south Alabama prison for the 1991 murder of a 22-year-old woman, told authorities he wanted his spiritual adviser present in the execution chamber.

Alabama had asked the justices to reverse a lower court ruling and allow the execution to proceed without the adviser present in the chamber.

The court denied the request.

The exact vote count was unknown, although Justice Elena Kagan -- joined by Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor -- wrote to explain why they voted to block the execution.

Kagan explained that the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals was "right to bar Alabama from executing Smith without his pastor by his side" and she rebuffed security concerns put forward by the Alabama Department of Corrections.

"The law guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference, including at the moment the State puts him to death," Kagan wrote.

She went on to say that Alabama could take "any number of measures" to make sure that a clergy member will act responsibly during an execution, including doing a background check on the minister.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh also explained why they would have granted Alabama's request, citing the state's security concerns.

Though Justice Clarence Thomas did not join that opinion, he acknowledged that he too would have granted Alabama's request. Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch were silent as to their vote.

Smith is on death row for the murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson, who he shot in the head as she swore not to reveal his crimes, CNN reports.

Eric Rassbach of the conservative Becket Fund for Religious Liberty spoke in favor of the court's ruling in Willie Smith's case.

"If Willie Smith has to leave this world, he shouldn't have to leave it all alone," Rassbach said. "Prisoners should be allowed to make peace with their Maker in their final moments," he said.

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