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Alabama’s Execution is Canceled Due to a Late-night Court Battle, an Official Says

A state correctional official stated Thursday night that the execution of Alabama death row inmate Kenneth Smith had been postponed due to time constraints brought on by a late-night legal battle. According to a statement from the Alabama Department of Corrections, the execution was aborted at around 11:20 p.m. local time “because of the time restrictions stemming from the lateness of the court’s proceedings.”

For his part in the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Sennett, Smith was initially scheduled to die at 6 p.m. CT, but the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals granted him a stay of execution just hours before his death warrant was due to expire at midnight.

When Smith’s death warrant was about to expire, the state subsequently filed an emergency appeal with the US Supreme Court, which heard the case shortly thereafter. The Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling and allowed the state to carry out the execution.

Although the emergency appeal was not addressed in the Court’s judgment, it was observed that the liberal Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Jackson would have upheld the stay. On August 5, 1999, authorities led murder suspect Alan Eugene Miller from the Pelham City Jail in Alabama. Miller claims that the state misplaced the papers he submitted to choose an alternative execution technique.

Miller is due to be executed by lethal injection on September 22, 2022, for a 1999 workplace shooting rampage that claimed the lives of three men.  Alabama death row inmate who claims he wants to die via nitrogen hypoxia’s fatal injection on Thursday is prevented from having it carried out by a judge.

The protocols necessary to carry out Smith’s execution “could not be accomplished before the expiration of the death warrant,” according to the state correctional department’s statement. A jury had recommended a life sentence for Smith at the time of his sentencing, but the trial judge overruled them and chose the death penalty, which the state has since abolished.

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Smith’s counsel argued against his execution in a prior filing with the Supreme Court. Smith would not be eligible for execution if he were tried today and the jury reached the same verdict, according to Smith’s attorneys, neither in Alabama nor in any other state because no jurisdiction now permits the practice of judicial override.

They contend that executing Smith despite the jury’s decision would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Following the Supreme Court’s denial of Smith’s appeal for a stay of execution on Wednesday, Smith was one of four death row inmates scheduled to be executed this week. Wednesday saw the executions of Stephen Barbee in Texas, Murray Hooper in Arizona, and Richard Fairchild in Oklahoma.

Smith’s request for a stay of execution comes while juries’ recommendations for sentences in cases involving the death penalty are in the public eye. The Parkland school shooter was given a life sentence because the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Oklahoma is getting ready to begin executing one guy every month despite a history of failed lethal injections. In 2017, Alabama became the final US state to abolish judicial override, which permitted judges to impose the alternative penalty in capital cases regardless of the jury’s choice of life or death. However, the new statute was not retroactive, and those like Smith who had life sentences recommended by juries at the time still sit on death row.

According to a 2011 report by the Equal Justice Initiative, Alabama courts often overruled jury verdicts for life, despite the practice previously being legal in three other states, including Indiana, Florida, and Delaware. The report stated that at the time, 20% of the state’s death row convicts had received death sentences due to judicial override.

Since it was repealed in Alabama, the topic of judicial override has been before the Supreme Court. Calvin McMillan, another prisoner, petitioned the court in 2020 to have his death sentence overturned on the grounds that it was illegal because his jury had voted for life in prison. The court dismissed his request.

According to court records, Elizabeth Sennett Smith was killed in 1996. Smith’s killer was convicted of capital murder for his part in a murder-for-hire conspiracy against Sennett, the wife of a local minister who was having an affair and had taken out an insurance policy on her to pay off his debts.

According to court documents, Sennett’s husband, Charles Sennett, hired a killer to kill his wife. Sennett then agreed to pay each of the two men $1,000 to kill his wife and make it appear as though she was killed in a break-in. One of the two men that were recruited at that point was Smith.

Smith stole a video cassette recorder from the Sennett home and kept it in his own house after the men carried out the murder as planned in March 1988.

The documents indicate that Charles Sennett committed himself a week after his wife was killed when the emphasis of the inquiry shifted to him. However, Smith was detained after police, acting on a tip from an unnamed source, carried out a search order at his house and discovered the Sennett VCR.

He was found guilty and given the death penalty, but an appeals court overturned that decision and mandated a new trial after concluding the state had used peremptory challenges against potential jurors based on the jurors’ race.

In the retrial, Smith was found guilty once more. But it appears that the jury was misled during the punishment phase, which comes after the guilt phase in capital case trials. Prosecutors and defense counsel typically debate aggravating and mitigating circumstances during the penalty phase of the case. These arguments center on whether the offender should be executed or given a lesser punishment, such as life in prison without the possibility of parole.

After hearing testimony concerning Smith’s “character and life circumstances,” according to his attorneys, the jury this time decided to sentence him to life in prison without the prospect of release. However, according to Smith’s counsel, the judge overruled the jury’s decision and sentenced Smith to death because she believed that the aggravating elements outweighed the mitigating ones.

A decrease in judicial overrides. Attorneys for the Innocence Project argued in a 2020 brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of McMillan’s case that judicial override was meant to empower judges to essentially act as a check on juries, stopping them from imposing death sentences in a random or biassed manner.

Florida, Delaware, and Indiana set forth clear criteria for when a judge could override a jury’s decision to sentence someone to life in prison, they said. For instance, to justify a death sentence in Florida and Delaware, the evidence must be so strong that no “reasonable person” could object.

 On August 25, 2021, death row inmate John Henry Ramirez was pictured in the visiting area of the Allan B. Polunsky Unit jail in Livingston, Texas. On September 22, 2022, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed a request to put off the execution of a prisoner who was due to die for the murder of a convenience store employee the following month. By Matthew Busch for The New York Times.

Texas executes John Ramirez, whose pastor was granted permission by the Supreme Court to touch him and pray openly as he passed away. As a result, judicial overrides to impose a death sentence were infrequent, or they were utilized in a significant number of instances that were later reversed. Furthermore, judges in Florida, Delaware, and Indiana routinely utilized it to impose life sentences in cases where juries had chosen death.

The attorneys’ brief claims that Alabama did not enact such safeguards and that judges there were only required to “examine” the jury’s decision. By changing the statute to make it clear that jury judgments were no longer “advisory,” but rather definitive, the state ended the practice in 2017.

Before his bill was passed, state senator Dick Brewbaker told CNN station WSFA that “you are entitled to a trial by a jury of your peers, and it ought to apply to the sentence as well.” Republican Brewbaker stated that “one of the most significant aspects of our democracy is that our laws are derived from the common law.

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