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February 12, 2021

Litigation over clergy halts Alabama execution (and divides Justices in notable ways)

Though the federal government carried out the first three execution of 2021 last month, the first state execution in the US was scheduled to take place last night in Alabama.  But, as this local article explains, today "Willie B. Smith III remains alive on death row in Alabama, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that required Smith’s spiritual advisor to be in the execution chamber with Smith when he was given the lethal injection."  Here is more:

The ruling came down around 11:08 p.m. Thursday night, with the Alabama Department of Corrections calling off the execution one minute later.

In the concurring ruling, Justice Elena Kagan said that the law “guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference”. “The Eleventh Circuit was right to bar Alabama from executing Smith without his pastor by his side,” Kagan said. “Nowhere, as far as I can tell, has the presence of a clergy member (whether state-appointed or independent) disturbed an execution.”

Kagan along with Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Amy Coney Barrett all denied the Alabama Attorney General’s Office’s motion to overturn a lower court ruling requiring Smith’s spiritual advisor to be in the execution chamber. Justice Brett Kavanaugh along with Justice John Roberts, wrote the dissenting opinion.

Smith’s other claim as to why the execution should be called off centered on what his lawyers called an intellectual disability.  While the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay based on that claim Wednesday night, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted that stay around 11 p.m. Thursday.

Smith, 51, was originally set to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. inside of William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore....  Smith was sentenced to death in 1992 for the Oct. 1991 abduction, robbery and murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson. Johnson’s body was found in the trunk of her burned car with a shotgun wound to her head, after being shot execution style at a east Birmingham cemetery. 

The full SCOTUS discussion of these issues is available at this link, but the opinions released by the justices are just concurrences and dissents from the denial of Alabama's application to lift the stay put in place by the Eleventh Circuit.  As Amy Howe explains in this SCOTUSblog post, the exact votes here are unclear even though it is clear that this issue has divided the more conservative block of Justices:

Four justices — Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett — all signed an opinion, written by Kagan, that said the state failed to adequately justify its policy of barring spiritual advisers from the execution chamber.  Three justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh — indicated that they would have allowed the execution to go forward under Alabama’s policy.  The remaining two justices — Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — did not publicly disclose how they voted, but at least one of them must have voted with the three liberal justices and Barrett to prevent the execution from occurring without a spiritual adviser.

This NPR piece about the ruling provides some context for how SCOTUS has struggled with execution clergy issues in recent years:

The Supreme Court justices have grappled with the same legal question at the core of the Smith case in the last two years, but have ruled very differently in each situation.  In 2019, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, ruled that Alabama could execute Domineque Hakim Ray, a Muslim man convicted of murder.

The appellate court had temporarily blocked the execution because the state barred the man from having a Muslim imam at his side in the death chamber. Alabama said only the prison's Christian minister would be allowed in.

A month later, in a 7-2 vote, the justices granted an eleventh-hour stay of execution to Patrick Henry Murphy, a Buddhist prisoner in Texas who had been denied a Buddhist religious adviser at his side in the death chamber.  The difference between the two cases, according to the conservative court majority, was that the Muslim prisoner waited too long to ask for an imam.

It's unclear what the state of Alabama's next move will be in the Smith case.

That both Justices Alito and Gorsuch remained silent and yet may have voted for the stay here is fascinating; these two have long seemed, by virtue of their votes and opinions, to be the two Justices most eager to ensure condemned inmates fail in any and all efforts to block or delay scheduled executions.  In addition, I believe this case may represent the very first time in which, in a closely divided vote, Justice Barrett joined an opinion of her more liberal colleagues.  Justice Barrett could have, of course, opted for the "silence is golden" approach adopted by Justices Alito and Gorsuch; that she notably decided instead to sign on to Justice Kagan's concurrence is quite noteworthy.

February 12, 2021 at 11:44 AM | Permalink

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