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Alabama death row inmate Willie B Smith given last-minute execution reprieve

State plans to challenge appeal court's ruling on death row inmate

Gino Spocchia
Thursday 11 February 2021 16:12 GMT
Alabama death row inmate, Willie B Smith III
Alabama death row inmate, Willie B Smith III (Alabama Department of Corrections )

An appeals court has given an Alabama death row inmate a last minute reprieve, hours before he were due to be executed on Thursday.

The inmate, Willie B. Smith III, was handed the reprieve by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday – some 21 hours before the planned execution in a south Alabama prison was scheduled to take place.

The 51-year-old’s execution had been two decades in the making, after a 1992 conviction for the shotgun slaying of a police detective's sister, Sharma Ruth Johnson, in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1991.

Prosecutors said Smith abducted Johnson, 22, at gunpoint from an ATM, stole $80 (£58) from her and then took her to a cemetery in the city of Birmingham where he shot her in the back of the head.

According to the appeals court, a claim by Smith – who has an IQ below 75 – that Alabama did not properly assist him with completing forms connected to the execution, will now be considered.

Alabama, seeking to be the first state to carry out an execution in 2021, is expected to appeal the court’s stay, and disputes Smith’s claim as a last-minute move to delay the execution.

The state is also expected to appeal against a separate ruling by the appeals court, that said Smith cannot be executed unless his personal pastor is allowed in the execution chamber.

Alabama previously placed a prison chaplain in the chamber who would pray with the inmate if requested, but the practice was stopped after Muslim inmates asked to have an imam present.

The execution of Smith would be among a small number carried-out during the Covid-19 pandemic, with none carried out by a state since July 8 last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press.

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