Alabama Pastor Allowed to Hold Inmate's Hand, Pray With Him as Execution Begins

An Alabama pastor will be permitted to hold an inmate's hand and pray with him when he is executed via lethal injection in October, the Associated Press reported. The move comes after lawyers for the state wrote in a court document in June that Alabama inmates facing execution can choose to have a personal spirit guide with them during the procedure, and the adviser will be permitted to touch them.

The state authorized the request to resolve litigation from inmate Willie Smith III, who requested that his personal pastor be allowed inside the execution chamber when he is put to death on Oct. 21. His death sentence was the result of a 1991 conviction for the kidnapping and murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson, 22, in Birmingham.

Court documents stipulate that the pastor can anoint Smith's head with oil, pray with him and hold his hand as the execution commences—although he must step away from Smith before his consciousness assessment. The pastor also has to stay inside the execution chamber until the witness room curtains are drawn.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Death Penalty in Alabama
Alabama will allow Willie B. Smith to hold his pastor's hand during an execution scheduled for next month. Above, this undated photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows Smith. Alabama Department of Corrections via AP

The description of what the pastor will be permitted to do during the execution was included in a footnote in a joint filing in June by the state and Smith's attorneys in which the two sides announced they had reached an agreement over the spiritual adviser issue.

The case is one of a series of legal fights over personal spiritual advisers at executions. A Texas death row inmate won a reprieve Wednesday evening from execution for killing a convenience store worker during a 2004 robbery after claiming the state was violating his religious freedom by not letting his pastor lay hands on him at the time of his lethal injection.

Alabama officials in February called off Smith's execution after the justices maintained an injunction issued by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saying he could not be executed without his pastor present in the chamber.

Alabama officials wrote in a court filing that the state recognized "its policy restricting access to the execution chamber to institutional chaplains was unlikely to survive further litigation" and that it had reached an agreement to allow Smith's pastor to be with him in the chamber.

Alabama has rescheduled Smith's execution for next month.

The state wrote in court filings that it will inform other inmates of their opportunity to select a spiritual adviser to accompany them in the execution chamber. However, it noted that the pastor will not be in the chamber when the time of death is called to protect the privacy of the person who performs that function.

In the past, Alabama routinely placed a Christian prison chaplain employed by the state in the execution chamber to pray with an inmate if requested. The state stopped that practice after a Muslim inmate asked to have an imam present. The prison system, which did not have a Muslim cleric on staff, maintained until recently that nonprison staff would not be allowed in the chamber.

Death Penalty Protest
Lawyers for Alabama wrote in a June court document that state inmates facing the death penalty can now have a personal spirit adviser, such as a pastor, with them during the execution. Above, members of the Abolitionist Action Committee participate in an annual protest and hunger strike against the death penalty outside the U.S. Supreme Court July 01, 2019 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images