Alabama death row inmate is executed nearly 30 years after murder conviction

Alabama death row inmate Willie B. Smith III was executed Thursday night, the state attorney general’s office announced, after the US Supreme Court declined to hear an 11th-hour appeal.

Smith was executed by legal injection at 9:47 p.m. local time in Atmore, Alabama, according to the attorney general’s office.

Smith was convicted of robbing 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson, forcing her into the trunk of her own stolen car and fatally shooting her in 1991. Investigators say Smith then set the car on fire with Johnson’s body inside.

“The family of Sharma Johnson has had to wait 29 years, 11 months, and 25 days to see the sentence of Sharma’s murderer be carried out,” state Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement. “Finally, the cruel and unusual punishment that has been inflicted upon them — a decades long denial of justice — has come to an end.”

In February, the Supreme Court blocked his execution on the grounds that Smith wanted his spiritual adviser present in the execution chamber. The state of Alabama had asked the justices to allow the execution without his adviser in the chamber.

On October 17, a preliminary injunction seeking to stop his execution regarding his choice of execution method was denied in federal court.

A state law went into effect in 2018 that allowed for death row inmates to elect death by nitrogen hypoxia instead of lethal injection, the default method of execution. Court records show that Smith received the form to choose, but didn’t make the election during a 30-day opt-in period.

Because Smith suffers from “significant cognitive deficiencies,” his motion for preliminary injunction alleged he was unable to “enjoy the benefit of the statute and the election form” without being aided with comprehension of the form and its contents. According to the ruling, Smith’s attorneys asserted that he was unable to fill out the form because he has an IQ between 64 and 72.

Chief US District Judge Emily Marks ruled, “Because Smith has not shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of his ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) claim, and because the equities weigh against him, Smith has not met his burden of establishing his right to a preliminary injunction.”

Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement following the execution, “The evidence in this case was overwhelming, and justice has been rightfully served. The carrying out of Mr. Smith’s sentence sends the message that the state of Alabama will not tolerate these murderous acts. I pray that the loved ones of Ms. Johnson can be closer to finding peace.”

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