Alabama executes Willie B. Smith, intellectually disabled Black man, for 1991 murder

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The State of Alabama has executed Willie B. Smith, an intellectually disabled Black man, for the 1991 murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson, the sister of a Birmingham police detective.

The execution began around 9:32 p.m.

A press witness said Smith gave no final words, but was accompanied in the execution chamber by his spiritual advisor, Robert Wiley.

The media witness said Smith jerked upward twice from the gurney on which he laid as the lethal injection began. One of Smith’s attorneys said “that’s the midazolam,” referring to the sedative used as the first drug in the state’s lethal injection protocol.

The state performed three conciousness tests on Smith, brushing his eyes and pinching his arm.

The curtain to the execution chamber closed at 9:44 p.m.

Prison officials said Smith’s time of death was 9:47 p.m. CST.

ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn spoke at a press conference after the execution. He said despite Smith’s movement observed by the media witness, the execution “went according to our protocol.”

He delivered a statement provided by the family of Sharma Ruth Johnson.

“After waiting for 30 years,” the statement said. “Justice has been served.”

Smith’s execution had been set for 6 p.m. but was delayed while the U.S. Supreme Court considered hearing his appeal. Ultimately, the court denied Smith relief.

The day before his execution, Smith was visited by his spiritual advisor and lawyers, according to prison spokesperson Linda Mays. Today, he had phone calls with lawyers and family members.

Smith refused breakfast, lunch, and a final meal today, Mays said, “but was observed eating snacks,” including barbecue chips, M&Ms, and a coke.

Today was not the first time the state was scheduled to execute Smith. Prison officials were set to put Smith to death in February, but the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the lethal injection, ruling that the condemned inmate was entitled to have a pastor present with him for his death. That spiritual advisor was allowed in the execution chamber tonight.

Although Smith died by lethal injection, he had expressed his desire to be executed by nitrogen suffocation, a method approved by the Alabama Legislature in 2018.

An execution using the method, which involves replacing oxygen needed to breathe with nitrogen gas, has never been carried out in the United States. Oklahoma and Mississippi are the only other states that have authorized its use.

Inmates were given the option to choose whether to be executed through lethal injection or nitrogen suffocation during a 30-day period in 2018, but Smith did not opt-in during that time. Smith’s lawyers have argued that he would have done so if he were able to understand the form prison officials provided him on the issue. Because they did not provide Smith, whose IQ is around 70, an accommodation to better understand his options, prison officials violated the inmate’s right under the Americans with Disabilities Act, his lawyers have said.

A trial on Smith’s disability claim was scheduled for 2022 before Judge Emily Marks, a Trump appointee, dismissed the lawsuit on technical grounds.

A federal appeals court reversed that dismissal, saying Marks had made her decision in error, and ordered her to reconsider Smith’s case.

Judge Marks’ reconsideration was swift, taking only two days. On Sunday, she denied Smith’s request for a preliminary injunction — a court order that would have delayed his execution until his disability claim was heard in full.

Smith’s lawyers brought the case back to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that Marks once again made an error in legal judgment. The court denied that appeal Thursday morning, although one judge called the Alabama Department of Corrections’ actions in the case disturbing and “feckless.”

“Alabama’s legislature gave death-row prisoners a choice in the manner of death,” Judge Jill Pryor wrote. “ADOC ostensibly intended to inform Mr. Smith of his right to choose death by nitrogen hypoxia. Mr. Smith intended to exercise that right, but because of his disability, he was unable to do so. ADOC has acknowledged that it could, if ordered to do it, give Mr. Smith another chance to make the election. Under these circumstances, I cannot silently acquiesce in the State’s refusal to afford Mr. Smith this final dignity.”

Smith’s legal team appealed the Eleventh Circuit’s decision to the United States Supreme Court ahead of tonight’s scheduled execution, but they declined to hear his case. Justice Sotomayor wrote, however, that the process informing inmates about their ability to opt into nitrogen suffocation was “haphazard.”

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional to execute intellectually disabled individuals. In 2017, it ruled that courts must apply up-to-date medical analysis about mental capability when determining whether an inmate can be executed. Despite these decisions, the same federal appeals court that denied Smith relief today previously decided that because these high court rulings came after Smith’s death sentence, they did not apply to him, calling it “a matter of timing.”

The Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based nonprofit has criticized that decision.

“What is tragic about Mr. Smith’s case is that the decision about whether his low intellectual functioning makes him ineligible for the death penalty was based on an outdated and faulty analysis,” the organization has said.

Prison officials limited press access to witness Smith’s execution. Citing concerns over COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections allowed only one reporter — a member of the Associated Press — to witness Smith’s final moments. Press outlets across the state objected to the policy, which was put in place before COVID-19 vaccines were made widely available.

Ahead of today’s scheduled execution, two former Alabama governors said Smith’s case raised serious questions about the death penalty, citing the man’s mental capacity as one important issue to be considered.

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