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Alabama Wants to Carry Out 2021's First State Execution

Appeals court says pastor needs to be allowed in execution chamber
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 11, 2021 12:03 AM CST

(Newser) – Alabama is seeking to carry out what would be the first execution by a state in 2021, that of a 51-year-old inmate convicted of the shotgun slaying of a police detective's sister decades ago. The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay blocking the Thursday night execution, but the state is expected to appeal that decision, the AP reports. Willie B. Smith III was scheduled to receive a lethal injection for the 1991 murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson in Birmingham. Prosecutors said Smith abducted Johnson, 22, at gunpoint from an ATM, stole $80 from her, and then took her to a cemetery where he shot her in the back of the head. Judges on the 11th Circuit stayed the lethal injection to give time to consider defense claims that the state failed to give the man, who has an IQ of below 75, required assistance with forms impacting the timing of his execution.

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The Alabama attorney general's office in court filings disputed that Smith is disabled and called it a last-minute maneuver to delay the execution. If the execution goes forward, it would be the first by a state in 2021 and one of the few at the state level since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, no state has had an execution since last July 8. The court also issued a separate ruling on religious grounds saying Alabama cannot execute Smith unless they allow his personal pastor in the execution chamber. In the past, Alabama had routinely placed a prison chaplain in the chamber who would pray with an inmate if requested. The state stopped that practice after Muslim inmates asked to have an imam present.

(Read more Alabama stories.)

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