ATMORE, Ala. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court late Thursday temporarily paused Alabama’s plans to execute a man convicted of killing a convenience store clerk, after defense lawyers argued that a judge unfairly imposed the death penalty after a jury recommended life in prison.
The court had narrowly ruled just a short while earlier Thursday evening that the execution could proceed, although four liberal justices said they would have halted the execution. However, the court then issued a temporary stay — its second of the evening — as attorneys for the condemned inmate quickly sought a reconsideration after that narrow decision.
While the whirlwind of judicial activity unfolded, Ronald Bert Smith Jr., 45, remained steps away from the prison chamber where he was scheduled to receive a lethal injection Thursday evening for the Nov. 8, 1994, shooting death of Huntsville store clerk Casey Wilson. It would be Alabama’s second execution this year if carried out.
Wilson was pistol-whipped and then shot in the head during the robbery, court documents show. Surveillance video showed Smith entering the store and recovering spent shell casings from the bathroom where Wilson was shot, according to the record.
A jury convicted Smith of capital murder in 1995 and recommended life imprisonment by a 7-5 vote, but the judge sentenced Smith to death.
Lawyers for Smith and the state submitted a flurry of last court filings over whether a judge should have sentenced Smith to death when a jury recommended life imprisonment. Smith’s attorneys had urged the nation’s highest court to block the planned execution to review the judge’s override.
Smith’s lawyers argued a January decision that struck down Florida’s death penalty structure because it gave too much power to judges raises legal questions about Alabama’s process. In Alabama, a jury can recommend a sentence of life without parole, but a judge can override that recommendation to impose a death sentence. Alabama is the only state that allows judicial override, they argued.
“Alabama is alone among the states in allowing a judge to sentence someone to death based on judicial fact finding contrary to a jury’s verdict,” attorneys for Smith wrote Wednesday.
Lawyers for the state argued in a court filing Tuesday that the sentence was legally sound, and that it is appropriate for judges to make the sentencing decision.
“A juror’s sentencing decision is likely to be the only decision about criminal punishment he or she will ever make, and it will come at the end of an emotionally draining trial, which will often be the first and only such trial a juror will have seen,” lawyers for the state wrote.
Judge Lynwood Smith, now a federal judge, sentenced Smith to death. He likened the killing to an execution, saying the store clerk was beaten into submission before being shot in the head in a crime that left an infant fatherless. In overriding the jury’s recommendation, the judge also noted in court records that, unlike many other criminal court defendants, Ronald Smith came from a middle-class background that afforded him opportunities.
In a clemency petition to the governor, Smith’s lawyers said he was an Eagle Scout at 15 and was the son of a NASA contract employee whose life spiraled downward because of alcoholism and emotional scars from an abusive home environment.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley had no plans to stop the execution, a spokeswoman said Thursday evening.
Smith had a final meal of fried chicken and French fries and was visited during the day by his parents and son.
Alabama has been attempting to resume executions after a lull caused by a shortage of execution drugs and litigation over the drugs used.
The state executed Christopher Eugene Brooks in January for the 1993 rape and beating death of a woman. It was the state’s first execution since 2013. Judges stayed two other executions that had been scheduled this year.
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