Supreme Court Rules Alabama Inmate Entitled to Clergy in Death Chamber, Puts Execution on Hold

February 12, 2021 Updated: February 14, 2021

The Supreme Court granted a rare reprieve to a convicted murderer in Alabama after the inmate argued that proceeding with his scheduled execution without his pastor’s presence in the death chamber violated the man’s First Amendment-protected religious freedoms.

The full title of the case is Jefferson S. Dunn, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections v. Willie B. Smith III. The stay appeared to have been granted just after 11 p.m. on Feb. 11. The execution is expected to be rescheduled after a new execution warrant replaces the one that expired less than an hour after the Supreme Court ruled.

Smith, now 51, was sentenced to death in 1992 for abducting, robbing, and murdering Sharma Ruth Johnson, 22, the year before. Johnson’s remains were located in the trunk of her burned-out car. She had been shot in the head execution-style in a cemetery after begging for her life.

Alabama enacted a policy in 2019 forbidding an inmate from being accompanied by any religious representative in the room in which the execution takes place. Before that, the state had required the presence of a prison chaplain at an inmate’s side.

The policy was changed after a condemned Buddhist man successfully challenged a Texas policy allowing only Christian and Muslim clergy to be present in the death chamber.

In that emergency death-penalty appeal, known as Murphy v. Collier, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote an opinion suggesting that one way to respect the prisoner’s religious rights would be to prevent all spiritual advisers from being present in the chamber. Texas followed up by adopting that policy and Alabama followed suit.

In the case at hand, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a concurring opinion that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton in 2000, “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 wrote. “Nowhere, as far as I can tell, has the presence of a clergy member (whether state-appointed or independent) disturbed an execution.”

“The law guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference, including at the moment the State puts him to death.”

Kagan, along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Amy Coney Barrett, all voted to deny the application from the office of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, a Republican, to overturn a lower court ruling and lift the stay.

Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Clarence Thomas and Kavanaugh all voted to overturn the ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that required the presence of Smith’s spiritual adviser in the death chamber in order for the execution to proceed.

“Because the State’s policy is non-discriminatory and, in my view, serves the State’s compelling interests in ensuring the safety, security, and solemnity of the execution room, I would have granted the State’s application to vacate the injunction,” Kavanaugh wrote in a dissenting opinion.

The court’s online docket doesn’t indicate how Justices Samuel Alito or Neil Gorsuch voted, but at least one of the two had to have voted to maintain the stay in order to obtain the required majority support among the nine justices.

Mike Lewis, communications director for Marshall, said the state hasn’t yet decided how to proceed.

“The State of Alabama is currently reviewing its options in light of last night’s Supreme Court order leaving the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ preliminary injunction of Willie B. Smith’s execution in effect,” Lewis said. “We have no further comment.”

Anand Agneshwar, counsel of record for Smith, didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.