In wake of legal challenge, Alabama will allow death row inmate 6 witnesses at Oct. 21 execution

National News

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — In the face of a legal challenge, the State of Alabama has said it will allow all six of Willie B. Smith’s designated witnesses to attend his execution, which is scheduled for Oct. 21.

Smith was convicted nearly three decades ago of the 1991 murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson, the sister of a Birmingham police detective.

Lawyers for the state announced the change in witness attendance in a hearing held Friday, according to a federal defender working on the case. Prison officials had previously said they would limit the number of witnesses Smith could have present for his death, citing concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

Prior to Friday’s hearing, lawyers for Willie B. Smith had asked the court for a preliminary injunction that would have prevented his execution “without all of the individuals Mr. Smith designated as witnesses to be present,” as guaranteed by Alabama law.

“While the need for COVID-19 measures is obvious, a global pandemic does not grant the ADOC the power to trample on Mr. Smith’s rights,” the filing said, “including his statutory right to have six witnesses of his choosing present at his execution.”

Lawyers for the state said in the hearing that Smith’s designated witnesses will be allowed to attend only if they sign a waiver, a federal defender said.

Officials have not announced, though, any changes to press access to the execution, which has been limited to one journalist: a representative of the Associated Press. Media outlets across the state have objected to the press restriction.

Lawyers for Smith, whose IQ is around 70, have appealed an earlier ruling dismissing his claims that officials violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Barring further court action, however, Smith’s execution will take place on Oct. 21.

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