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Supreme Court halts inmate execution over pastor’s absence

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This undated photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows Willie B. Smith III. The Alabama Supreme Court on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020 ordered that 51-year-old Willie B. Smith III be put to death on Feb. 11 for the shotgun slaying of Sharma Ruth Johnson. (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP)
Williams Babalola
The Supreme Court late Thursday night, suspended the execution of an Alabama inmate unless the state allowed his spiritual adviser to be present in the execution chamber.
The inmate, Willie B. Smith III, a Christian, had requested the presence of his pastor, Robert Paul Wiley Jr., during the moment of his execution, arguing that it will provide him with spiritual guidance and comforts.
According to the request by his lawyers, Smith desires such comfort “including (the pastor) holding his hand, praying with him in his final moments and easing the transition between the worlds of the living and the dead.”
Alabama had requested the Supreme Court to reverse the ruling of a lower court that suspended the execution but the justices upheld the ruling.
The order did not state how every justice had voted but Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court’s three-member liberal wing made up of Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, to rule in favour of Smith.
Kagan rejected the security concerns brought before the court by the Alabama Department of Corrections and stated that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals was “right to bar Alabama from executing Smith without his pastor by his side.
“The law guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference, including at the moment the State puts him to death.
“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.’
“Prison security is, of course, a compelling state interest, but past practice, in Alabama and elsewhere, shows that a prison may ensure security without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber.”
Smith is on death row for the 1991 murder of 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson who he shot in the head as she swore not to reveal his crimes, according to court papers.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that he would have lifted the injunction but gave no reasons.
In a dissent, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., wrote that he, too, would allow the state have its way.
According to Kavanaugh, “Because the state’s policy is nondiscriminatory and, in my view, serves the state’s compelling interests in ensuring the safety, security and solemnity of the execution room. I would have granted the state’s application to vacate the injunction.
“States that want to avoid months or years of litigation delays should figure out a way to allow spiritual advisers into the execution room, as other states and the federal government have done. Doing so not only would satisfy inmates’ requests, but also would avoid still further delays and bring long overdue closure for victims’ families.”

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