Alabama set to carry out its first execution during pandemic Thursday



MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama is preparing to execute an inmate by lethal injection in what would be the state’s first death sentence carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Willie B. Smith III, 51, is scheduled to be put to death Thursday at a south Alabama prison for the 1991 shotgun slaying of Sharma Ruth Johnson.

U.S. District Judge Austin Huffaker, Jr. on Tuesday denied Smith’s lawyers request for a stay. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled the execution could go forward with precautions.

Smith’s attorneys have sought a stay arguing that the pandemic and the prohibition on in-person prison visits had made it difficult for them to adequately represent him. They said Smith has been unable to receive the number of in-person visits from attorneys, friends and a pastor that death row inmates normally do before their date in the execution chamber.

The prison system said Smith could have contact visitation during the week preceding his execution.

Attorneys also argued the execution would be a super-spreader event. Some COVID-19 cases have been linked to recent federal executions.

The Alabama attorney general’s office wrote in court filings that the state is no longer under a stay-at-home order and said carrying out executions is one of the functions of state government.

“The State is open, and its agencies are expected to function. One of the State’s functions is to ensure that justice is carried out in a timely fashion by performing executions of those inmates on death row who have exhausted their appeals,” the Alabama attorney general’s office wrote.

The Department of Corrections has changed some procedures in the face of the pandemic. The prison system is limiting media witnesses to the execution to a single reporter, a representative from The Associated Press.

Prosecutors said Smith abducted Johnson at gunpoint in October 1991 as she waited to use an ATM in Birmingham, forced her into the trunk of a car and withdrew $80 using her bank card. Prosecutors said he then took her to a cemetery where he shot her in the back of the head and later returned to set the car on fire.

A jury convicted Smith in 1992 in the death of Johnson, who was the sister of a Birmingham police detective.

Appellate courts rejected Smith’s claims on appeal, including that his lawyers provided ineffective assistance at trial and that he should not be executed because he is intellectually disabled. Court records indicate a defense team expert estimated his IQ at 64 while a prosecution expert pegged it at 72.

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