On Wednesday night, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed a district court’s decision and ruled that the state of Alabama must allow Willie B. Smith III’s pastor to be in the execution chamber during Smith’s execution.
Alabama's Department of Corrections was scheduled to execute Smith on Feb. 11, and was not granting Smith’s request that Pastor Robert Wiley Jr., his friend and spiritual adviser, be able to pray with him and hold his hand up until his death.
The Eleventh Circuit found that the District Court “abused its discretion by improperly inquiring into Smith’s religious beliefs and practices,” and said that prohibiting Smith’s pastor from the execution chamber was a substantial burden of his religious exercise.
“Although we agree that the [Alabama Department of Corrections] has a compelling interest in maintaining security, we believe the District Court abused its discretion in finding the ADOC’s policy is the least restrictive means to further that compelling interest,” the court wrote in its 2-1 decision.
This morning, Alabama’s Department of Corrections filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, asking them to overturn the Eleventh Circuit’s decision. Smith’s attorneys expect the Supreme Court to make a decision before 6 p.m. CST. The Eleventh Circuit also granted Smith a stay of execution until Feb. 16, while the court evaluates another claim that the execution is a violation of Smith’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Smith’s attorneys have filed multiple suits, and there is a separate case regarding COVID-19 protocols and safety that is ongoing.