Alabama Is Trying to Go Through With a Potential Superspreader Execution

Willie B. Smith would be the first person put to death at the state level since July 8.
February 11, 2021, 8:06pm
This undated photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows Willie B. Smith III. (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP)

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The pandemic has put restrictions on almost everything, including executions. But Alabama is trying to put an intellectually disabled Black man to death anyway. 

Willie B. Smith—a 51-year-old with an IQ of 64, according to his defense team—was convicted in the 1991 murder of a Birmingham police detective’s sister. He’s scheduled to die by lethal injection later this month, although the state could appeal to execute him as soon as Thursday at 5 p.m. EST.

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If everything goes according to the state’s plan, he’ll become the first death row inmate killed at the state level since July 8, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Because of the public health challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, most states have halted their executions. Attorneys and civil rights advocates have also argued that the lack of hearings, witnesses, and other changes could infringe upon due process. 

Despite those concerns, former President Donald Trump forged ahead with putting an unprecedented number of prisoners to death in his last days in office. And those federal executions were likely COVID superspreaders, an AP analysis found. 

That’s the same argument Smith’s lawyers are making now.

“Mr. Smith’s execution has all the makings of a superspreader event, threatening not just the lives of those who attend the execution but also the lives of the people in the communities from which they came,” attorney Leslie S. Smith wrote in a petition to the Alabama Supreme Court in early January. 

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The court, however, denied the motion because the prison will be taking precautions to prevent an outbreak

In October 1991, Smith approached 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson at gunpoint while she was waiting to use an ATM in Birmingham, Alabama. He abducted the woman—the sister of a Birmingham police detective—forced her into the trunk of his car, and used her debit card to withdraw $80. He then drove her to a cemetery, where he shot her in the back of the head with a sawed-off shotgun. A jury found Smith guilty of Johnson’s murder later that year.

First, the state disputed the validity of Smith’s intellectual disability, according to the Associated Press, and determined that he actually has an IQ of 72, eight points higher than what his defense team has said. On Wednesday, however, his defense was able to get a stay of execution until February 16 on the grounds that the state failed to give him mandated assistance with paperwork based on his IQ. They determined that the paperwork could have affected when the state could carry out the execution. 

Smith’s attorneys did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment. 

In December, Smith’s attorneys also filed a suit demanding he have his pastor present if the state was to carry out his execution, which would go against a 2019 Alabama ruling barring all non-prison staff from the execution chamber. On Wednesday, a federal court determined that Smith’s pastor would be allowed to enter the chamber during his execution.

While Alabama is moving to carry out executions during the pandemic, other Southern states are having a change of heart. Earlier this month, Virginia became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty.