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An Alabama death row inmate who was expected to be executed today (11 February) has been granted a temporary reprieve, after a federal court granted him a stay on Wednesday evening.
Almost 30 years after he was convicted of murder, 51-year-old Willie B Smith had been given his death date by The Alabama Supreme Court in an 8-0 ruling at the beginning of last week.
The death sentence had been handed down to him in 1992 for the murder of 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson in east Birmingham, Alabama.
In 2012, Smith first unsuccessfully tried to appeal his sentence by arguing he is intellectually disabled. Now he has been granted a stay in order to allow a judiciary review to once again go over this claim.
The federal court's stay - granted by the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals - expires on 16 February, but the death warrant only lasts until midnight of today, so if Smith has not been executed by then, the courts will have to seek a new date for his death from the Alabama Supreme Court.
Smith's attorneys also gained an additional victory, when the 11th Circuit reversed a lower court's ruling that didn't allow Smith to have a spiritual advisor with him in the execution chamber.
The 11th Circuit order states that: "This appeal presents the question of whether a death-row prisoner is entitled to have his religious advisor present inside the execution chamber at the time of execution."
The Alabama Department of Corrections doesn't currently allow an inmate to have anyone in the execution chamber with them, although the policy only came into place in 2019 where previously the department's Christian chaplain was required to be in the chamber.
It was changed after a Muslim inmate, Domineque Ray, was denied the presence of his Islamic spiritual advisor when he died.
In 1991, Smith had abducted Sharma Ruth Johnson at gunpoint by a local bank, after his housemate Angelica Willis approached her while she was sitting in her car to ask for directions, forcing her into the boot of her own car by threatening her with a sawn off shotgun.
Smith then returned to the bank and drew out $80 using Johnson's ATM card that she'd dropped onto the floor, and then took the car with Willis to pick up his brother, Lorenzo, before driving to Zion Memorial Cemetery, where Smith decided he had to kill Johnson out of fear that she would go to the police.
Johnson's body was still in the trunk when the vehicle was abandoned, but Smith returned the following day to burn the car and destroy any evidence.
A wire tap had recording caught Smith describing his victim's final moments before the murder: "She said, no I ain't like that, she said that. I touched her head, I said you're a m***********g liar, boom!"
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