Alabama Executes Willie Smith as Other States Retreat from Lethal Punishment


After leading the nation in Covid-19 deaths per capita last month, Alabama became just the third state to carry out a death sentence this year when it executed Willie Smith by lethal injection yesterday.

For several years, the execution rate has fallen significantly. Willie Smith’s is just the fifth execution carried out by a state this year. So far, 2021 is on track to be the seventh consecutive year of fewer than 30 executions.

2020 also had the lowest number of state executions in 37 years. Five states—Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Missouri—carried out a total of seven executions in 2020. Almost as many people (six) were exonerated from death row last year.

The death sentencing rate has also been in significant decline over the last several years. Only four new death sentences were imposed in the United States in the first half of 2021.

As the number of new death sentences and executions continues to decline, the number of states that have abolished the death penalty continues to rise. Colorado abolished capital punishment in 2020, and on March 24, 2021, Virginia became the 23rd state (and the first Southern state) to abolish the death penalty.1 Another 12 states still have the death penalty on the books but have not carried out an execution in at least 10 years.

The federal government carried out an execution spree without parallel in the 20th or 21st centuries, killing 13 people between July 14, 2020, and January 16, 2021, after 17 years with no federal executions.

With the nation’s highest death sentencing rate, Alabama has the fourth highest number of people sentenced to death in the country—only the much more populous states of California, Florida, and Texas have larger death rows.

Alabama’s death row population is grossly inflated by sentencing practices that are outlawed in every other state.

Alabama is the only state—out of 27 death penalty states—where the standard sentencing procedure does not require that the jury return a unanimous verdict in support of death before a death sentence may be imposed.2 In Nebraska, a three-judge panel determines sentence, and in Montana the trial judge determines sentence. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 29-2521; Mont. Code § 46-18-305. Two other states allow imposition of a death sentence without a unanimous jury verdict in only the narrow category of cases where a jury is deadlocked. See Ind. Code § 35-50-2-9(e)-(f); Mo. Stat. § 565.030(4).

Of the 168 people currently on Alabama’s death row, 80% would not have been sentenced to death in any other state because they did not receive unanimous jury verdicts for death.

There are 30 people currently on Alabama’s death row who actually received life verdicts from juries that were overruled by elected judges. While this practice has been outlawed by the legislature and questioned by many judges, courts have not applied the ban on override retroactively.

Alabama was the only state in the nation that authorized judges to override jury verdicts for life and impose the death penalty when it finally ended the practice in 2017. Those who were sentenced to death through judge override before the law changed still face execution today.