Supreme Court Bars Alabama from Executing Willie Smith Without Pastor By His Side

Updated 02.12.21

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.

Mr. Smith has significant intellectual deficits. IQ scores demonstrate low intellectual functioning, and experts testified that he has the functional independence of an 11-year-old child.

In addition, he grew up in abject poverty with an abusive father who beat his mother in front of him. Often too poor to pay the gas and electricity bills, Mr. Smith’s family could not afford to hire a lawyer to represent him.

The trial judge appointed lawyers to represent Mr. Smith, but one of them was later disbarred, and the attorney responsible for the penalty phase of the trial had been admitted to the bar only eight months before Mr. Smith’s trial, which was her first trial as a practicing attorney.

Two members of Mr. Smith’s jury voted against the death penalty, which would have barred him from being sentenced to death in nearly every other state. In Alabama, however, a unanimous jury verdict is not required, and Mr. Smith was sentenced to death in 1992.

Religious Exercise

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.

Intellectual Disability

Despite obvious indications that Mr. Smith was intellectually disabled, trial counsel did not do adequate IQ testing or other psychological testing to provide the jury with a proper understanding of Mr. Smith’s intellectual deficits.

After his trial and initial appeal, new lawyers for Mr. Smith challenged the reliability of the trial and presented additional evidence of his intellectual disability, including IQ scores demonstrating significant subaverage intellectual functioning and experts who testified that he has the reading skills of an eighth grader and the math skills of a sixth grader.

The State’s expert agreed that Mr. Smith has adaptive difficulties with “community use, health and safety, self-direction, social skills, and leisure skill areas,” but determined that Mr. Smith is not intellectually disabled based on a weighing of adaptive strengths.

In 2012, the state court denied relief and agreed with the State that Mr. Smith’s adaptive strengths and deficits need to be weighed against each other. It concluded that Mr. Smith’s adaptive deficits were not enough to show intellectual disability because they were outweighed by his strengths.

In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Moore v. Texas that states may not weigh a defendant’s adaptive strengths against his adaptive deficits. The Court explained that many individuals with intellectual disabilities have both adaptive deficits and adaptive strengths, and “significant limitations in conceptual, social, or practical adaptive skills [are] not outweighed by the potential strengths in some adaptive skills.”

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the weighing analysis used by the Alabama courts in denying relief to Mr. Smith in 2012 would not be appropriate today. “This approach was acceptable at the time,” the federal appeals court wrote. “But after Moore, it no longer is.”

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. It is a mere technicality that the Supreme Court set out the appropriate scientific analysis in 2017, but the Eleventh Circuit nonetheless held that Moore does not apply to Mr. Smith’s case because it was decided after the state court’s decision. The court wrote that its denial of relief on Mr. Smith’s claim was “a matter of timing.”

On Wednesday, February 10, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the execution stayed until February 16 to allow the court to review the merits of Mr. Smith’s claim that his intellectual deficits made it impossible for him to meet the deadline to select a different method of execution. He argued that the Alabama Department of Corrections violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide assistance to Mr. Smith even though prison officials were aware of his intellectual disability.

The Supreme Court vacated that stay of execution in a one-sentence order issued late Thursday night.