United States: despite the pandemic, Alabama is Preparing to Execute a Prisoner Sentenced to Death

Alabama has not carried out executions of prisoners on death row since March 2020.

Willie Smith is believed to be given a lethal injection at Holman Penitentiary in Atmore, Alabama. (Illustration) PAUL BUCK
Willie Smith is believed to be given a lethal injection at Holman Penitentiary in Atmore, Alabama. (Illustration) PAUL BUCK

A rare decision since the start of the pandemic on American soil. Alabama authorities are scheduled to execute Thursday, despite the COVID-19 epidemic, an African-American sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman 30 years ago.

A legal battle, which relates in particular to the health context, is however underway and the fate of Willie Smith, 52, will probably be decided at the last minute by the Supreme Court of the United States.

If he does not get a stay, the convict will be given a lethal injection that evening at Holman Penitentiary in Atmore. He would be the first death row inmate executed in Alabama since the outbreak of Covid-19.

The Kidnapped and Executed Victim

In 1991, Willie Smith abducted a 22-year-old woman in front of a distributor. By threatening her with a weapon, he had forced her to give him her bank card number and had withdrawn a hundred dollars, under the watchful eye of a surveillance camera.

He then drove to a cemetery and shot his victim, who was the sister of a police officer, to the head. He had put the body back in the young woman’s car and set it on fire.

A year later, he was sentenced to death by ten out of twelve jurors, Alabama is one of the few US states to allow verdicts by non-unanimous juries.

A Legal Struggle still in progress

Over the following decades, his lawyers challenged the decision, notably by pointing out the intellectual disabilities of their client, without succeeding in having his sentence commuted.

As the execution date approaches, they introduced a whole series of new appeals, in particular, to challenge the absence of a chaplain in the death chamber or the changes to the protocol adopted by the prison authorities because of the COVID-19. A federal appeals court ruled in their favor late Wednesday, but the state had to appeal.

Contrary to the states, which have not carried out any executions since July, Donald Trump’s administration resumed federal executions during the summer and carried out 13 executions in seven months, including three in January 2021.

The arrival of Democrat Joe Biden, who opposes the death penalty, has put an end to this unprecedented series.