Kenneth Smith: Execution of Alabama death row inmate suspended, state official says

Kenneth Smith: Execution of Alabama death row inmate suspended, state official says


The execution of Alabama death row inmate Kenneth Smith was halted Thursday night, a state corrections official said, citing time constraints caused by an overnight court battle.

The Alabama Department of Corrections said in a statement that the execution was suspended at approximately 11:20 p.m. local time “due to time constraints caused by court delays.”

Smith was originally scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. for his role in the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Sennett, but the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted him a stay of execution just hours before his death warrant expired at midnight.

The state then filed an urgent appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed its decision less than two hours before Smith’s death warrant was due to expire, overturning the lower court’s decision and allowing the state to move forward with the execution.

While the court order did not comment on the emergency appeal, it noted that the liberal justices had left Sotomayor, Kagan and Jackson in place.

The state Department of Corrections said in a statement that the protocols needed to execute Smith “cannot be completed before the death warrant expires.”

At Smith’s sentencing, the jury voted 11-1 for life in prison, overturned by the trial judge who chose the death penalty instead, which was later overturned by the state.

Smith’s attorneys argued in a previous SCOTUS filing that he should not be executed. If he were convicted today and his jury reached the same conclusion, his attorneys said Smith would not be eligible for the death penalty, not in Alabama or elsewhere, because no jurisdiction today allows the practice of judicial overturning.

Sentencing Smith to death regardless of the jury’s verdict, they argued, would be cruel and unusual punishment that would violate his constitutional protections under the Eighth Amendment.

Smith was one of four inmates sentenced to death this week after the Supreme Court on Wednesday. was denied his application for a stay of execution. Stephen Barbee of Texas and Murray Hooper of Arizona were executed on Wednesday, and Richard Fairchild of Oklahoma was executed on Thursday.

Smith’s stay of execution comes as jurors’ sentencing recommendations in death penalty cases are in the national spotlight. The jury could not give a unanimous recommendation Sentencing in Parkland school shootingas a result, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Alabama In 2017, it was the last state of the USA to overturn a court order that allows judges to override juries and impose alternative sentences in capital cases. However, the new law was not retroactive, and convicts like Smith, who were given “advisory” life sentences by juries at the time, were sentenced to death.

Although the practice was previously allowed in three other states—Indiana, Florida and Delaware—Alabama judges, according to a 2011 report, are voiding jury votes for life. equal justice initiative. At the time, judicial overturns accounted for about 20% of executions among the state’s death row, the report said.

The Supreme Court went to the issue of annulment of the judgment in Alabama since its repeal. In 2020, the court denied another defendant, Calvin McMillan’s request to overturn the death penalty. said it was unconstitutional because his jury voted for life.

Smith was convicted of the death penalty in 1996, court documents show, for his role in a hit-and-run plot that targeted Sennett, the wife of a local minister who took out his wife’s insurance policy. can pay off debts.

Sennett’s husband, Charles Sennett, hired a man to kill his wife, the court heard. The man then hired two other men, one of whom was Smith, and Sennett agreed to pay $1,000 each to kill his wife and make it look like she had been killed in a burglary.

In March 1988, the men carried out the assassination as planned, and Smith retrieved the videotape from Sennett’s home, which he kept at his residence.

Charles Sennett killed himself a week after killing his wife, records show, as the investigation began to focus on him. But Smith was arrested after authorities received an anonymous tip, searched his home and found Sennett’s VCR.

He was convicted and sentenced to death, but an appeals court overturned that initial finding and ordered a new trial, finding that the state had peremptorily challenged prospective jurors because of their race.

At the retrial, Smith was again convicted. But the jury appears to have deviated during the penalty phase, which occurs after the guilt phase in capital crimes trials. In the penalty periodprosecutors and defense attorneys traditionally argue over aggravating and mitigating circumstances—reasons why they say a defendant should receive a lesser sentence, such as the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

This time, the jury heard evidence about Smith’s “character and life circumstances,” and his attorneys voted 11-1 for life in prison without the possibility of parole after sentencing.

The judge, however, felt the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating circumstances, Smith’s attorneys wrote, and overruled the jury and sentenced Smith to death.

Judicial nullification is intended to allow judges to serve primarily as checks on juries, preventing them from imposing the death penalty in arbitrary or discriminatory ways. Innocence Project Advocates McMillan wrote in a 2020 Supreme Court brief in support of the case.

Judges in Florida, Delaware and Indiana have set clear standards that can overrule a jury’s vote for life, they wrote. For example, in Florida and Delaware, the facts supporting the death penalty had to be so convincing that a “reasonable person” would disagree.

As a result, judicial overturns for the imposition of the death penalty have rarely occurred – or, in most cases, they have been overturned. In addition, judges in Florida, Delaware and Indiana have often used it to impose life sentences in cases where juries have decided on death.

Alabama imposed no such safeguards, barring briefs and requiring judges there only to “review” the jury’s verdict.

The state abandoned this practice in 2017 by amending the law to clarify jury verdicts they were no longer “consultative” but definitive.

“You have the right to be tried by a jury of your peers, and that should also apply to sentencing,” said Sen. Dick Brubaker, who sponsored the bill. This was reported by CNN affiliate WSFA In February 2017, before his bill passed.

“One of the most important things about our democracy is that our laws are derived from the common law,” said Brubaker, a Republican. “Therefore, violent crime is an anti-social crime. That is why we have a court in society. So we elect a community jury and they decide guilt, innocence and punishment.”

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