Alabama Executes Willie Smith


The State of Alabama executed Willie Smith by lethal injection today.

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 had significant intellectual deficits. 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.

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 had the reading skills of an eighth grader and the math skills of a sixth grader.

“Alabama does not dispute that Willie Smith has significantly below-average intellectual functioning,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote. And the State’s expert agreed that Mr. Smith had adaptive difficulties with “community use, health and safety, self-direction, social skills, and leisure skill areas,” but nonetheless determined that Mr. Smith was 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 made 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 did 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.”

Religious Exercise

The State of Alabama planned to execute Mr. Smith by lethal injection on February 11, 2021. 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.

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 the Supreme Court upheld the injunction because it found 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. The execution was called off shortly after the Supreme Court issued its order.

On September 1, after the State indicated that Mr. Smith would be allowed to have his personal pastor present with him during the execution, the Alabama Supreme Court set a new execution date for October 21, 2021.

Americans with Disabilities Act

On June 1, 2018, a new law authorizing Alabama officials to carry out executions by nitrogen hypoxia went into effect. It gave people under a death sentence 30 days to elect nitrogen hypoxia over lethal injection.

A few days before the deadline, prison officials distributed an election form to people on death row with instructions to sign, date, and return the form if they wished to be executed by nitrogen hypoxia.

Lawyers for Mr. Smith argued that his intellectual deficits made it impossible for him to elect a different method of execution without help. Counsel 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.

Because Mr. Smith could not understand how to elect Alabama’s new execution method, he argued, the State executed Mr. Smith by lethal injection, a more painful method than nitrogen hypoxia.

On July 14, 2021, Mr. Smith’s lawyer filed a lawsuit to prevent the state from executing him until he was given adequate accommodation because of his disability.

On October 17, the district court denied Mr. Smith’s claims and he appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, which denied relief on October 21.

“Evidence in the record supports Mr. Smith’s contention that he did not understand the significance of the Election Form and that he was unaware he had only days to choose how he would be put to death,” Circuit Judge Jill Pryor wrote in a concurring opinion. “It disturbs me that ADOC, which took on the responsibility to inform prisoners about their right to elect death by nitrogen hypoxia within 30 days, did so in such a feckless way.”

“Alabama’s legislature gave death-row prisoners a choice in the manner of death,” she continued. “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.”

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Mr. Smith’s request for a stay of execution at 8:30 p.m.

In a statement, Justice Sonia Sotomayor recognized “the fundamental inequity” of “the State’s compressed timeline for notifying eligible inmates and haphazard approach to doing so,” writing that “the way the ADOC has administered the Alabama Legislature’s directive to allow those on death row to choose nitrogen hypoxia as their means of execution . . . was at odds with the gravity of that task and the humanity of those affected.”

“Once a State has determined that individuals on death row should have a choice as to how the State will execute them,” she concluded, “it should ensure that a meaningful choice is provided.”

The State announced shortly before 10 p.m. that Mr. Smith was executed.