Alabama man put to death for 1991 killing of woman

Executed for 1991 killing

An Alabama man who avoided execution in February was put to death Thursday for the 1991 killing of a woman who was abducted during a robbery and then shot in a cemetery.

Willie B. Smith III, 52, received a lethal injection at a prison in southwest Alabama. He was pronounced dead at 9:47 p.m. local time.

The execution went forward after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a late request for a stay by his lawyers, who had argued the execution should be blocked on grounds that Smith had an intellectual disability meriting further scrutiny by the courts.

Smith was convicted of kidnapping and murdering 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson in Birmingham.

Prosecutors said Smith had a shotgun when he abducted Johnson in October 1991 from an ATM location in the Birmingham area. He withdrew money using her bank card and then took her to a cemetery and shot her in the back of the head, they said. Johnson was the sister of a Birmingham police officer.

“After waiting for 30 years, justice has been served,” Johnson's family said in a statement read by Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn.

The execution began shortly after 9:30 p.m. Smith declined to give any final words. The state allowed a personal pastor with the inmate for the first time during the execution. Pastor Robert Wiley appeared to pray with Smith and put his hand on his leg as the lethal injection procedure began. One of his attorneys held his fist up to the viewing room in a sign of support.

The court had halted an earlier execution date for Smith in February when he was already in a holding cell near the death chamber and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with his appeal that he could not be put to death without his pastor present.

Smith appeared to jerk twice upward off the gurney as the first drugs hit his system. “That's the midazolam,” one of his attorneys said in reference to the sedative used at the start of executions. His breathing was initially labored, but then slowed.

Dunn said the execution went “according to our protocol.”

“Sharma Ruth Johnson was abducted at gunpoint, threatened while in the trunk of the car, terrorized, assaulted, and ultimately, Willie B. Smith, III brutally killed her,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement issued after the execution.

“The evidence in this case was overwhelming, and justice has been rightfully served,” she added.

Recently, Smith's lawyers had argued unsuccessfully that the inmate had an intellectual disability that prevented him from understanding the prison paperwork related to the selection of an execution method.

Experts had estimated Smith’s IQ from 64 on the low end and 75 on the high end, but courts have ruled he was eligible for the death penalty. A defense expert in a post-trial appeal said while Smith’s IQ was measured at 64, his language, reading, and mathematics skills, and that these particular results were inconsistent with a diagnosis of intellectual disability.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing intellectually disabled people is unconstitutional, but courts have ruled that Smith was eligible for the death penalty.

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