Feb. 12 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court halted a planned execution Thursday night for Alabama death row inmate Willie Smith over a dispute about having his pastor present when he's put to death.
Smith, 51, was scheduled to die by lethal injection for the 1991 murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson. He was convicted of robbing the 22-year-old woman and then killing her in a cemetery.
The high court ruled that Alabama can't execute Smith without his pastor in the execution chamber, upholding a preliminary injunction issued by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Alabama has a new rule barring clergy from the execution chamber for "security reasons," but Smith requested that his personal pastor be with him to ease the "transition between the worlds."
"Alabama has not carried its burden of showing that the exclusion of all clergy members from the execution chamber is necessary to ensure prison security," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the decision.
"Prison security is, of course, a compelling state interest. But past practice, in Alabama and elsewhere, shows that a prison may ensure security without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber."
The court ruled that Alabama's argument that accompanying clergy may not be "trustworthy" was insufficient. The state's claim that "disturbances have arisen around executions in the past," applied to two cases with close family members, not "well-vetted clergy members" Kagan wrote.
The case will be returned to a lower court to give a full ruling on the merits of Smith's case.
Alabama formerly allowed a prison-appointed Christian chaplain to accompany inmates when they were put to death, but changed the law about allowing clergy after a Muslim prisoner requested the presence of an imam in 2019.
That case also went to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 to deny the inmate's request and said he waited too long to make it.
The high court on Thursday night also overturned the appellate court's earlier stay of execution on the basis that Smith's low IQ prevented him from correctly filling out prison forms.
The Alabama Department of Corrections said Friday Smith's execution would have to be canceled and Attorney General Steve Marshall would have to order another.
It's not yet known what the state's next move will be.