Shortly after 11 pm Thursday night, the Supreme Court barred Alabama from executing Willie Smith, 51, because the Alabama Department of Corrections refused to allow his pastor to be at his side in the execution chamber.
Mr. Smith, a Black man, was sentenced to death in 1992 for killing a white woman during a robbery in Jefferson County in 1991, when he was just 22 years old.
The State of Alabama planned to execute Mr. Smith by lethal injection on February 11. Mr. Smith asked to have his pastor with him in the execution chamber to hold his hand and pray with him for redemption as he is being put to death, but the State refused his request.
Mr. Smith’s attorneys challenged that decision, arguing that a death row prisoner is entitled to have his religious advisor present in the execution chamber at the time of death under federal law protecting the right to religious exercise.
In June, the Supreme Court stayed the execution of Ruben Gutierrez, a Texas inmate who argued that his religious liberty was violated when the State denied his request to have a Christian chaplain present during his execution. Mr. Gutierrez argued in a petition to the Court that the State cannot violate his right to exercise his religion by barring a spiritual advisor unless it has a valid reason, such as a serious security concern.
The Supreme Court ordered the lower court to determine whether the presence of a spiritual advisor during an execution would create any serious security problems, and after a hearing, the lower court found it would not. The Court then granted Mr. Gutierrez’s petition and ordered the lower court to consider the merits of his claims in light of the State’s failure to show a valid security reason for denying his request.
On Wednesday, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals granted an injunction requiring the ADOC to permit Mr. Smith to have his pastor present in the execution chamber at the time of the execution. The State appealed, but on Thursday shortly after 11 pm, the Supreme Court upheld the injunction barring Alabama from executing Smith without his pastor by his side.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Amy Coney Barrett that “the law guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference, including at the moment the State puts him to death.”
The Court concluded that the State failed to show a sufficient reason to deny Mr. Smith’s right to religious exercise by barring his pastor from the execution chamber. Prison security is a compelling state interest, Justice Kagan wrote, but past practice in Alabama and other jurisdictions shows that security can be ensured without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber. The Court concluded:
Alabama has not carried its burden of showing that the exclusion of all clergy members from the execution chamber is necessary to ensure prison security. So the State cannot now execute Smith without his pastor present, to ease what Smith calls the “transition between the worlds of the living and the dead.”
The execution was called off shortly after the Supreme Court issued its order.