Willie B. Smith, intellectually disabled Black man, executed in Alabama


Undated photo of Willie B. Smith provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The state of Alabama on Thursday executed Willie B. Smith, an intellectually disabled Black man, for the murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson in 1991.

The execution took place at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore.

The execution was set to happen at 6 p.m., but did not start until shortly after 9:30 p.m. due to the state waiting on a ruling from the nation’s highest court. According to media reports, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Smith’s request for a stay of execution at about 8:30 p.m.

Smith’s official time of death was 9:47 p.m. According to the Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution and acted as a pool reporter, he gave no last words. The state allowed a personal pastor in the chamber, Pastor Robert Wiley, who appeared to pray with Smith.

This was not the first execution date set for Smith. Prison officials were set to execute him in February, but the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the lethal injection, ruling that the condemned inmate was entitled to have a pastor present with him for his death.

Smith had expressed his desire to be executed by nitrogen suffocation, a method approved by the Alabama Legislature in 2018.

An execution using the method, which involves replacing oxygen needed to breathe with nitrogen gas, had never been carried out in the United States. Oklahoma and Mississippi are the only other states that have authorized its use.

Inmates were given the option to choose whether to be executed through lethal injection or nitrogen suffocation during a 30-day period in 2018, but Smith did not opt-in during that time. Smith’s lawyers have argued that he would have done so if he were able to understand the form prison officials provided him on the issue. Because they did not provide Smith, whose IQ is around 70, an accommodation to better understand his options, prison officials violated the inmate’s right under the Americans with Disabilities Act, his lawyers have said.

A trial on Smith’s disability claim was scheduled for 2022 before Judge Emily Marks, a Trump appointee, dismissed the lawsuit on technical grounds.

A federal appeals court reversed that dismissal, saying Marks had made her decision in error, and ordered her to reconsider Smith’s case.

Marks’ reconsideration was swift, taking only two days. On Sunday, she denied Smith’s request for a preliminary injunction — a court order that would have delayed his execution until his disability claim was heard in full.

Prison officials limited press access to witness Smith’s execution. Citing concerns over COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections only let one reporter — a member of the Associated Press — witness Smith’s final moments. Press outlets across the state objected to the policy, which was put in place before COVID-19 vaccines were made widely available.

Ahead of the execution, two former Alabama governors said Smith’s case raised serious questions about the death penalty, citing the man’s mental capacity as one important issue to be considered.

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