Alabama Death Row Prisoner: On Thursday, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals granted a last-minute stay of execution to an Alabama prisoner. The inmate’s death warrant was scheduled to expire at midnight, but the court granted him a stay of execution just hours before the deadline.
Federal Appeals Court Delays Alabama Execution
A death sentence for an Alabama man was stayed hours before midnight Thursday. Kenneth Smith was to be killed at 6 pm CT for murdering Elizabeth Sennett in 1988. A jury voted 11-1 for life, but the judge decided on the death penalty, which the state has subsequently repealed.
Alabama has challenged the US Supreme Court’s stay of execution. Smith’s lawyers argued before SCOTUS he shouldn’t be executed. If he were tried today and his jury reached the same verdict, his lawyers maintained, he wouldn’t be eligible for execution in Alabama or anyplace else, as no jurisdiction allowed judicial override. Putting Smith to death notwithstanding the jury judgment would violate his eighth amendment rights.
Smith was due to be killed this week after the Supreme Court refused his stay-of-execution plea. Stephen Barbee, Murray Hooper, and Richard Fairchild were executed on Wednesday. Smith’s stay of execution comes as death penalty jury verdicts attract global attention. The Parkland school shooter was sentenced to life because a jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict.
Alabama was the latest U.S. state to overturn the judicial override that permitted judges to overrule juries’ life-or-death decisions in fatalities. Inmates like Smith, whose grand jury returned a life “advisory” sentence, remain on death row. Previously lawful in Indiana, Florida, and Delaware, Alabama judges frequently suspend jury votes for life, according to a 2011 Equal Justice Initiative study. The research indicated 20% of the state’s death sentences were for judicial irregularities.
Since Alabama’s judicial override was invalidated, the Supreme Court has debated it. In 2020, the court refused Calvin McMillan’s request to reverse his execution sentence since his jury voted for life. Smith was convicted of capital murder in 1996 for his participation in a murder for hire against Sennett, a minister’s wife who was having an affair and acquired an insurance policy for her to pay off his debts.
- Harvard Law School Grads Talk About Careers in Defending People Facing the Death Penalty
- Wrongful Death Suit Is Filed After Third Death at Atria Park
Charles Sennett, Sennett’s spouse, allegedly recruited a killer. Sennett hired three men, including Smith, to kill his wife and make it appear like a burglary. In March 1988, the guys killed Sennett and brought a VCR to Smith’s residence. Charles Sennett murdered himself a week after his wife’s death when inquiries focused on him. After receiving an anonymous tip, detectives searched Smith’s house and recovered Sennett’s VCR.
A judge reversed his conviction and death sentence after determining that the state had racially profiled potential jurors. Retrying Smith. In criminal trials, the punishment phase follows the guilt phase. During sentencing, prosecutors and defense counsel argue about aggravating and mitigating factors, or why the prisoner should be executed or given a lighter punishment, such as life without parole.
The jury decided 11-1 for life without parole after hearing about Smith’s “character and circumstances,” his attorneys wrote. Smith’s defenders say the court overturned the jury’s conviction and condemned him to death because aggravating elements outweighed mitigating ones.
The judicial override was meant to empower judges to regulate juries and prevent unjust or discriminatory death sentences, Innocence Project lawyers argued in a 2020 brief supporting McMillan’s case. Florida, Delaware, and Indiana detailed when a judge can overrule a jury’s life sentence decision. In Florida and Delaware, the evidence must be so persuasive that no “reasonable person” disagrees.
As a result, the majority of death sentences were reversed by the courts. Florida, Delaware, and Indiana judges often utilized it to impose life sentences after a jury recommended death. Alabama courts had simply to “consider” the jury’s judgment, according to the attorneys’ brief. In 2017, the state made jury judgments definitive, not advisory.
Senator Dick Brewbaker, who supported the bill, told CNN station WSFA in February 2017 before it passed. Our rules are based on common law, said Republican Brewbaker. A violent crime is a communal crime. Hence, a communal trial. We pick a communal jury to judge guilt, innocence, and punishment.