Alabama's Execution is Cancelled Due to a Late-night Court Dispute

Alabama’s Execution is Cancelled Due to a Late-night Court Dispute

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 filed an emergency appeal with the US Supreme Court, which heard the case shortly after. 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 judgement, it was observed that the liberal Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Jackson would have upheld the stay. 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 a commission 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 performances 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 could not reach a unanimous verdict.

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 because it was illegal because his jury had voted for life in prison. The Court dismissed his request.

The assassination of Elizabeth Sennett

According to court records, Smith participated in a murder-for-hire scheme against Sennett, a local pastor’s wife. The latter was having an affair and had taken out an insurance policy on her to pay off his debts. Sennett was the plot’s target, which Smith was found guilty of in 1996.

According to court documents, Sennett’s husband, Charles Sennett, hired a killer to kill his wife. Sennett 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 burglary after that man recruited two more people, one of whom was Smith.

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

According to the records, Charles Sennett committed suicide a week after his wife was killed, just as the investigation turned to him. However, Smith was detained after police executed a search warrant at his house based on an anonymous tip and discovered the Sennett’s VCR.

He was found guilty and given the death penalty. Still, an appeals court overturned that decision and mandated a new trial after determining that the state had based peremptory challenges on the race of potential jurors.

Smith was found guilty once more after the retrial. However, the sentencing phase, which comes after the guilt phase in capital case trials, appears to have persuaded the jury. Prosecutors and defence attorneys typically debate aggravating and mitigating circumstances during the penalty phase, providing justifications for why they believe the defendant should either be executed or receive a sentence less severe than death, such as life in prison without the possibility of parole.

This time, the jury decided to sentence Smith to life in prison without the chance of release after hearing testimony regarding his “character and life circumstances,” according to his counsel. Smith’s counsel claimed that the judge overruled the jury’s verdict and sentenced Smith to death because he believed the aggravating reasons outweighed the mitigating circumstances.

judicial override’s demise

In a 2020 brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of McMillan’s case, attorneys for the Innocence Project stated that judicial override was designed to allow judges to essentially act as a check on juries, stopping them from imposing death sentences in a random or biassed manner.

When a court might overturn a jury’s decision to sentence someone to life in prison, they said Florida, Delaware, and Indiana set specific criteria. For instance, in Florida and Delaware, the evidence supporting the death penalty had to be so strong that no “reasonable person” could object.

As a result, death sentences were rarely challenged by the courts, or they were overturned in the vast majority of instances. Additionally, it was regularly employed by judges in Florida, Delaware, and Indiana to impose life sentences in cases where juries had chosen death.

According to the attorneys’ brief, Alabama did not enact such protections, and judges were merely required to “examine” the jury’s decision. In 2017, the state abolished the practice by changing the statute to clarify that jury judgments were no longer “advisory” but rather definitive. Senator Dick Brewbaker, the bill’s sponsor, told  affiliate WSFA in February 2017 that “you are entitled to a trial by a jury of your peers, and it ought to apply to sentence too.”

Republican Brewbaker stated that the fact that our laws are formed from common law is one of the most significant aspects of our democracy. “For this reason, a violent crime is a crime against a community. We have a trial in the neighbourhood because of this. Because of this, we choose a jury from the district, and they determine guilt, innocence, and punishment.