Alabama man who avoided earlier execution date put to death

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ATMORE, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama man who avoided execution in February was put to death Thursday for the 1991 killing of a woman who was abducted during a robbery and then shot in a cemetery.

Willie B. Smith III, 52, received a lethal injection at a prison in southwest Alabama. He was pronounced dead at 9:47 p.m. local time.

It was Smith’s second execution date since Feb. 11, when he was already in a holding cell near the death chamber and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with his appeal that he could not be put to death without his pastor present.

This time, the nation’s highest court rejected a late request for a stay by his lawyers, who had argued the execution should be blocked on grounds that Smith had an intellectual disability meriting further scrutiny by the courts.

Smith was convicted of kidnapping and murdering 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson in Birmingham.

Prosecutors said Smith had a shotgun when he abducted Johnson in October 1991 from an ATM location in the Birmingham area. He withdrew money using her bank card and then took her to a cemetery and shot her in the back of the head, they said. Johnson was the sister of a Birmingham police officer.

Smith’s lawyers had argued unsuccessfully that the inmate had an intellectual disability that prevented him from understanding the prison paperwork related to the selection of an execution method.

Experts had estimated Smith’s IQ from 64 on the low end and 75 on the high end, but courts have ruled he was eligible for the death penalty. A defense expert in a post-trial appeal said while Smith’s IQ was measured at 64, his language, reading, and mathematics skills, and that these particular results were inconsistent with a diagnosis of intellectual disability.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing intellectually disabled people is unconstitutional. In reviewing Smith’s case in 2019, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a later Supreme Court decision that “states may not weigh a defendant’s adaptive strengths against his adaptive deficits” in determining disability did not retroactively apply to Smith.

Last-minute court filings had centered on whether Smith should have been given assistance to understand the form distributed to death row inmates in 2018 regarding selection of an execution method. After adopting nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, state law gave inmates a 30-day window to request that as their preferred execution method.

If Smith had requested nitrogen hypoxia, his death sentence could not have been carried out to date because the state has not yet developed a system for using nitrogen to execute inmates.

Smith’s attorneys had unsuccessfuly asked the Supreme Court to stay the execution until a trial could be held in his ongoing lawsuit arguing that the Americans with Disabilities Act required him to have assistance in understanding the form.

While the 11th Circuit denied the stay request, one member of the three-judge panel sharply criticized Alabama.

Circuit Judge Jill Pryor wrote in a concurring opinion the state has acknowledged Smith has “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning” and that Smith said he received no explanation of the form related to execution method selection.

“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,” Pryor wrote.

The state of Alabama argued that Smith had received access to his lawyers for help.

Alabama’s Department of Corrections changed some procedures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The prison system limited media witnesses to the execution to one journalist, a representative from The Associated Press.

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