The state of Alabama executed Willie B. Smith last month without bothering to dispute the fact that he was intellectually disabled.
Smith was sentenced to death in 1992 for killing 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson in 1991. He abducted her during a robbery and later shot her.
In 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional to execute intellectually disabled individuals because it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. It followed that with Moore v. Texas in 2017, finding that courts must apply up-to-date medical standards in measuring mental capability when determining whether an inmate can be executed. Smith’s IQ was estimated to be somewhere between 60 and 70. (A common standard for developmental disability is 70 or below.) But because he was sentenced before those rulings, a federal court found they didn’t apply to him. (According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals “wrote that its denial of relief on Mr. Smith’s claim was ‘a matter of timing.’”)
And while that was the last and worst act committed by the government against Smith, it wasn’t the only injustice.
Alabama death row prisoners were given a choice in 2018 of how they wanted the state to kill them: by lethal injection or nitrogen suffocation. They had 30 days to fill out a form indicating their choice, and although Smith had expressed his preference for nitrogen, he didn’t complete the form because he didn’t understand what he was being asked. His lawyers sought a stay of execution, arguing that the state violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by not allowing him to choose how he wanted to die, but the stay was denied in the federal courts and by the U.S. Supreme Court.
So he died by lethal injection. The only act of mercy granted him at the end of his life was that his spiritual advisor was permitted to be with him in the execution chamber.