Willie B. Smith III, An AL Death Row Inmate: A Direct Human Rights, Disability Justice, and Religious Freedom Case

Willie B. Smith III is currently on the Alabama Department of Corrections Death Row serving a 1992 sentence for the kidnapping and murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson. There is no doubt of the seriousness of his crime. However, his punishment does not fit his crime. His case is directly a human rights, disability justice, and religious freedom matter.

No person deserves death at the hands of their own government. 

To add to that; Smith has a clinical diagnosis of an intellectual disability, verified by clinically accepted diagnostic material presented to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Being intellectually disabled directly disqualifies him from execution under the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution, as execution has been seen and upheld by the United States Supreme Court as a cruel and unusual punishment. However, even though these facts were presented, the Courts have declined to apply the diagnosis to his case. He is facing cruel and unusual punishment because a court has decided to invalidate his disability and not apply it to his case. This is far too common among Alabama Death Row cases. 

Additionally; Smith is being denied access to his spiritual figure of choice, his pastor, Pastor Robert Paul Wiley Jr in the event of his execution. This is yet another commonality among Alabama Death Row cases, adding to Alabama’s long track record of religious freedom violations among Death Row inmates. 

I spoke with Ms. Emily E. Pember, BCC, LPC-I, regarding the importance of having a religious figure present during death. She said, “Everyone deals with death differently, and literally every experience is unique. People often talk about wanting to make sure their loved ones are taken care of. They often hold on until they know everyone will be OK. Some hold on until they see a specific person. People often share regrets, ask deep questions about life and death and what comes next. In between, there is often silence and small talk. I look at it like a dance where the patient (or family depending on who I’m talking with) is leading. My role as the chaplain is to do reflective listening, offer to counsel where appropriate, and ultimately make sure everyone feels safe. I offer comfort through my presence, my words, a touch (often holding a hand)… Sometimes people want to do a life review, read scriptures that are important to them, and/or pray. Sometimes people want their clergy contacted and I often make that contact. I have also visited people/families alongside their spiritual leader(s). I have helped in other ways when needed, but these are what come to mind that I do consistently. The thing people are often surprised by is that there is often a lot of joy and laughter alongside tears and grief. Also, many people talk about what they’re seeing on the other side (I call that heaven), which is pretty amazing to experience alongside them! Sometimes, though, what they are experiencing feels scary to them. I support them as much as I can and find ways to help them relax no matter what they are experiencing. They often describe it to me and we pray or sing or read their favorite scriptures. Sometimes we work on reframing stories…looking at them in different ways or rewriting the story in ways that feel good or safe to them.” This is just one experience of how religious figures impact a death, which perfectly illustrates the importance of having one present. Mr. Smith has one. Religious freedom is defined in the Constitution and is a human right. He should be allowed to use him if he is unfortunately executed at the hands of the State of Alabama.

His execution, originally scheduled for Feb 11, was postponed until at least Feb 16, as he was granted a stay of execution to review his religious and disability claims. 

Let me reiterate: he is not eligible for execution. It is a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution, considered a cruel and unusual punishment. Limiting his access to his pastor through this time can also be interpreted as a cruel and unusual punishment, and is a direct violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

We still have time to save his life. What can we do? Call, write, and email Governor Kay Ivey and urge her to convene a board and ultimately grant clemency to Willie B. Smith III based on an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment by his diagnosis of an intellectual disability and the direct violation of his religious freedom by consistently limiting his access to his pastor. 

Let’s get to work and save his life. We don’t have much time.