The state of Alabama on Thursday cancelled the planned execution of death row prisoner Willie Smith after the Supreme Court of the United States upheld a lower court order requiring that the state allow Smith’s spiritual advisor to be in the execution chamber when the lethal injection shot was administered.
“Willie Smith is sentenced to death, and his last wish is to have his pastor with him as he dies. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, applying a statute designed to protect prisoners’ religious rights, required Alabama to honor that request,” Kagan wrote in a three-page concurrence. “Alabama has not carried its burden of showing that the exclusion of all clergy members from the execution chamber is necessary to ensure prison security. 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.’”
Kagan explained that while the security in a prison is of the utmost concern, there is no evidence to suggest that the presence of a prison chaplain beside an inmate preparing to die presented any risk, noting that there was no record of a member of the clergy ever disrupting an execution.
In 2019, it split 5 to 4 to allow Alabama’s execution of a Muslim inmate, Domineque Ray, although he protested that the state only allowed a state-employed Christian chaplain to accompany inmates in their final moments before execution.
Some conservatives in the majority later said it was because Ray had filed his complaint too late. But the order drew fire from both the left and religious conservatives on the right.
Kagan wrote a stinging dissent at the time, saying “Ray has put forward a powerful claim that his religious rights will be violated at the moment the state puts him to death.”
No scriptures, no preaching.