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The Twists and Turns of Death Row
By Bill Hoagland
In 1988, a minister in a small church in Alabama hired John Parker, Billy Williams and Kenneth Eugene Smith to kill his wife and to make it look like a home robbery gone bad. The three men each received $1,000 to “do the job.” The minister borrowed the money from his mistress. The murder, carried out with a lead pipe and a knife, was brutal. The three men were arrested within a few days and each were charged with murder. The minister committed suicide a week later when he learned that he too was going to be charged.
The three men were tried separately and all three were convicted of first degree murder. One jury decided that John Parker should be spared the death sentence and another jury decided unanimously that Billy Williams should receive the death sentence. It is the third case, involving Kenneth Eugene Smith, that we are going to discuss in this column because this case, now more than 30 years old, is still “twisting and turning” in the wind.
In November 1996, a jury in the Smith case, in an advisory opinion, decided by an 11 to 1 vote that Smith should not receive the death sentence; instead they recommended life imprisonment. The trial judge, however, overrode the 11 to 1 recommendations of the jury and instead ordered that Smith be executed. A number of appeals followed this result. In the meantime, Billy Williams was executed in 2010, per his court-ordered execution.
In 2017, the Alabama legislature enacted a statute that prohibited judicial overrides in capital cases. Alabama was the last jurisdiction to make this change; all other states that still have a death penalty prohibit a judge from disregarding a jury’s decision if the death penalty is involved. But for whatever reason, this Alabama statute was not made retroactive; Smith’s death sentence remained in effect. His execution by lethal injection was scheduled for Thursday, November 17, 2022 at 6 p.m. On November 16, a federal appellate court ordered a stay of the execution because in their opinion the judicial override in this case was unconstitutional. Later that day, the US Supreme Court unanimously overruled the appellate court and ordered that the execution proceed on the 17th.
On November 17, an appellate court again stayed the execution, this time on the basis that the procedure being used by Alabama authorities constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” Alabama filed an emergency petition with the US Supreme Court and at 10:30 p.m., the Supreme Court reversed the lower court and by a 6 to 3 decision, ordered that the execution proceed immediately. Now the state had only an hour and a half to execute Smith because his death warrant expired at midnight. However, the medical personnel attempting to insert the lethal injection into Smith’s veins were unable to find a suitable vein to inject and at midnight, the death warrant expired. The next day, the Alabama Governor decreed that no further executions could occur by lethal injection until further order of the Governor because the three latest executions by lethal injection had not gone well.
In Alabama, there is an alternative statutory method approved for executions. That method is suffocation by the inhalation of a toxic gas. The problem with this alternative method is that it has never been used in Alabama. So what happens now? Does Smith get to decide if he is willing to be suffocated or will this untried method be mandated regardless of whether he agrees to it? Or does he finally get life imprisonment after all?
See what I mean about “twisting and turning” on death row? I recommend that if you don’t like surprises, you should avoid death row at all costs.
■ Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.