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


Alabama Corrections officials on Thursday cited time constraints caused by a late-night court battle to halt the scheduled execution of a death row inmate — the second time in as many months the state n did not carry out an execution before the expiration of a death warrant.

The execution of Kenneth Smith by lethal injection – which would have been the fourth execution in the United States this week – was ruled out after his administrators struggled to find a vein to install an intravenous line: “We tried several places (on his body),” Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm said, according to

The thwarted proceeding highlights critics’ questions about Alabama’s ability to adhere to its own death penalty protocol. The case – in which the trial jury’s 11-1 vote for a life sentence was overturned by a judge’s death sentence – also comes as the jury’s recommendations are in the national spotlight after a Florida jury did not unanimously recommend that the Parkland school shooter be put to death, resulting in his life sentence.

Smith’s execution was called off at approximately 11:20 p.m. “due to time constraints resulting from the delay in the legal process,” the corrections department said in a statement, adding that the protocols required to complete the execution ” could not be executed before”. expiry of the death warrant.

Smith was due to be executed at 6 p.m. for his role in the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Sennett. But the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals granted him a stay of execution just hours before his death warrant expired at midnight. The state then filed an emergency appeal with the United States Supreme Court, which less than two hours before the death warrant expired issued its decision reversing the lower court’s decision and granting the state the possibility of continuing the execution.

Although the High Court order did not provide comment on the emergency appeal, it did note that liberal Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Jackson would have upheld the stay.

Smith’s failed execution on Thursday closely mirrors the state’s failed attempt in September to put Alan Eugene Miller to death.

Additionally, Hamm blamed the flurry of legal proceedings at the eleventh hour, saying “the convict’s veins could not be viewed in accordance with our protocol until the death warrant expired.”

The two failed execution attempts come on the heels of the death of Joe Nathan James, whom the state put to death in July in an execution that has since come under intense scrutiny, after a report by The Atlantic said a private autopsy showed James “suffered a long death.

Corrections officials had cut James’s skin to find a vein to establish an IV line — which is not part of Alabama’s lethal injection protocol, Dr. Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist and professor at Emory University who witnessed the autopsy.

“Kenneth Smith’s attempted execution last night is the latest in a series of executions and attempted executions that demonstrate failures in Alabama’s ability to carry out the death penalty in accordance with its protocols and its constitutional values,” said Ngozi Ndulue, deputy director of the death penalty. Information Center, said Friday in a statement to CNN.

Ndulue particularly took issue with the “secrecy with which Alabama carries out executions,” saying it “allows this pattern to continue with the only public scrutiny that comes from litigation and post-execution autopsies.”

“When other states faced persistent problems with executions, they suspended executions and investigated the source of the problem,” Ndulue said.

When Smith was convicted, a jury voted 11 to 1 for a life sentence which was overturned by the trial judge who instead opted for the death penalty, a practice the state has since repealed.

Smith’s lawyers argued in an earlier Supreme Court filing that he should not be executed. If he stood trial today and his jury reached the same conclusion, his attorneys said, Smith would not be eligible for execution — not in Alabama or anywhere else, because no jurisdiction today allows the practice. judicial derogation.

To put Smith to death despite the jury’s verdict, they say, would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, violating his constitutional protection under the Eighth Amendment.

Alabama became the last US state in 2017 to repeal the Judicial Override, which allowed judges to override a jury’s decision for life or death in capital cases and impose the alternative sentence. The new law, however, was not retroactive, and inmates like Smith, whose juries returned what was then an “advisory” verdict for life, remain on death row.

While the practice was previously permitted in three other states — Indiana, Florida and Delaware — judges in Alabama routinely nullified jury votes for life, according to a 2011 report by the Equal Justice Initiative. At the time, judicial override accounted for about 20 percent of death sentences among state death row inmates, according to the report.

The Supreme Court has considered the issue of judicial override in Alabama since it was repealed. In 2020, the court denied the motion of another inmate, Calvin McMillan, who pleaded for his death sentence to be overturned, saying it was unconstitutional since his jury had voted for life.

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

Smith was convicted of capital murder in 1996, according to court documents, for his role in a murder-for-hire conspiracy targeting Sennett, the wife of a local minister who was having an affair and had taken out an insurance policy for his wife so that he could repay his debts.

Sennett’s husband, Charles Sennett, recruited someone to kill his wife, according to court records. This man then recruited two others, 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 murder as planned, and Smith took a VCR from the Sennetts, which he stored in his own residence.

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

He was found guilty and sentenced to death, but an appeals court overturned that initial finding and ordered a new trial, finding that the state had based the prospective jurors’ peremptory challenges on their race.

Smith was convicted again at the retrial. But the jury was apparently swayed during the penalty phase, which occurs after the guilt phase in capital crime trials. During the penalty phase, prosecutors and defense attorneys traditionally argue over aggravating and mitigating circumstances – the reasons why they say the accused should be executed or given a lesser sentence such as life in prison without parole. .

This time, the jury voted 11 to 1 for a life sentence without the possibility of parole afterward, his lawyers write, hearing evidence about Smith’s “character and life circumstances”.

The judge, however, ruled that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating circumstances, write Smith’s attorneys, and overturned the jury’s vote, sentencing Smith to death.

The judicial override was intended to allow judges to essentially serve as checks on juries, preventing them from handing down death sentences in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner, Innocence Project lawyers wrote in a 2020 brief to the Supreme Court at the United States. support of McMillan’s case.

Florida, Delaware and Indiana have set specific standards when a judge can overrule a jury’s vote for life, they wrote. In Florida and Delaware, for example, the facts supporting a death sentence had to be so compelling that no “reasonable person” would disagree.

As a result, the judicial override to impose a death penalty has rarely taken place – or a large proportion of the cases where it has been used have subsequently been overturned. Additionally, judges in Florida, Delaware, and Indiana frequently used it to impose life sentences when juries decided on death.

Alabama instituted no such safeguards, the attorneys’ brief says, and judges were only required to “consider” the jury’s verdict.

The state abolished this practice in 2017 by changing the law to specify that juries’ verdicts were no longer “advisory” but final.

“You have the right to a trial by a jury of your peers, and that should also apply to sentencing,” Senator Dick Brewbaker, who sponsored the bill, told the affiliate. CNN 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 Brewbaker, a Republican. “That’s why a crime of violence is a crime against a community. That’s why we have a trial in the community. That’s why we choose a jury from the community and they decide on guilt, innocence and punishment.

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