February 16, 2021
Willie Smith III was scheduled to die in Alabama’s death chamber last Thursday, but the Supreme Court granted a last-minute reprieve, ruling that his execution must remain hold unless and until the state allows Smith to have his pastor by his side in the execution chamber.
Until 2019, Alabama’s Department of Corrections allowed a Christian chaplain employed by the state to be in the execution chamber during lethal injections, but it did not allow outside spiritual advisers. It changed that policy and barred all spiritual advisers from the execution chamber in response to a March 2019 ruling from the Supreme Court in an emergency death-penalty appeal known as Murphy v. Collier. In that case, a Buddhist inmate challenged Texas’ policy of allowing Christian and Muslim spiritual advisers in the execution chamber while excluding clergy representing other religions, arguing that the policy discriminated against him. The court put the Buddhist inmate’s execution on hold, and Justice Kavanaugh wrote a separate opinion suggesting that one solution would be for the state to bar all spiritual advisers from the execution chamber. Both Texas and Alabama adopted that policy.
Smith went to federal court to challenge the state’s new policy, arguing that the total ban on spiritual advisers in the chamber violates both the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion and a federal law that protects inmates’ religious rights. On Wednesday, the 11th Circuit sided with Smith and blocked the state from executing him unless it allowed his personal spiritual adviser, a Christian pastor, to join him in the chamber. Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court, which rejected the appeal.
Interestingly, the three reliably liberal justices (Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer) were joined by newcomer (and conservative darling) Amy Coney Barrett as well as either Justice Gorsuch or Justice Alito (or both). The four former justices all signed onto Justice Kagan’s opinion upholding the 11th Circuit’s opinion, and Justices Thomas, Roberts and Kavanaugh all formally dissented. Since at least five justices must have agreed to affirm the 11th Circuit’s opinion, we know that either Gorsuch and/or Alito was part of the majority.
And while this decision may extend Smith’s life, it is almost a certainty that he will eventually be put to death.