Washington D.C., Feb 12, 2021 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- The Supreme Court on Thursday refused an appeal by the state of Alabama to execute a man without a chaplain present.
Willie Smith, 51 years old, was scheduled to be executed by Alabama on Thursday night; Smith had asked for a chaplain to be present with him in the execution room, but the state denied his request due to its policy.
A federal appeals court ruled in Smith’s favor, and the Supreme Court on Thursday declined Alabama’s appeal to overturn that decision. Smith’s execution could still proceed, provided that the state provides him with a chaplain as requested.
Diana Verm, senior counsel for the Becket which filed an amicus brief in support of Smith, praised the decision.
“Prisoners should be allowed to make peace with their Maker in their final moments. We are glad the Supreme Court has ensured that can happen in this case,” said Verm.
“If Willie Smith has to leave this world, he shouldn’t have to leave it all alone. Alabama used to know that, which is why it always required a chaplain to be with the condemned man until the end,” she said.
Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Amy Barrett all signed the order denying Alabama’s appeal. Justice Brett Kavanaugh dissented from the decision to deny the injunction, and Justice Clarence Thomas said he would grant Alabama’s request for an injunction. Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch did not sign their names to the order.
Alabama failed to prove that its exclusion of chaplains from the execution chamber was necessary for the “compelling state interest” of security, wrote Kagan, joined by Breyer, Sotomayor and Barrett.
Previous practice by Alabama and other states “shows that a prison may ensure security without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber,” Kagan wrote. “Until two years ago, Alabama required the presence of a prison chaplain at an inmate’s side.”
In another case in Texas, the Supreme Court recently ruled favorably toward Catholic death row inmate Ruben Gutierrez, who had challenged the state’s prohibition of chaplains at executions. In the case, the court sent the matter back to the lower courts for reconsideration; a district court had found that the presence of a chaplain in the execution room would not be a security concern.
“So the State cannot now execute Smith without his pastor present, to ease what Smith calls the ‘transition between the worlds of the living and the dead,’” the justices wrote on Thursday.
In 2019, the Alabama Department of Corrections banned clergy members from being present with people being executed by the state.
The rule was put in place following a controversy in Texas in which members of some religions were allowed to have ministers at their executions, but others were not. Texas and Alabama then both implemented bans on all clergy during executions.
Furthermore, the federal government conducted more than 10 executions since last summer at which clergy were present, Kagan said.
“The law guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference, including at the moment the State puts him to death,” said Kagan.
Smith was convicted of abducting and murdering a woman 30 years ago. His attorneys claim that he is intellectually disabled–a claim that the state disputes.
In 2019, Alabama executed 42 year-old Domineque Ray without an imam present; Ray, a Muslim, had requested his spiritual advisor to be with him at his execution.