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Alabama halts execution after Supreme Court gives last-minute approval

Kenneth Eugene Smith has been sentenced to die by lethal injection for killing a 45-year-old grandmother in 1988. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Corrections/Website
1 of 3 | Kenneth Eugene Smith has been sentenced to die by lethal injection for killing a 45-year-old grandmother in 1988. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Corrections/Website

Nov. 18 (UPI) -- The execution of convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith was called off late Thursday following a last-minute court battle that Alabama officials said prevented them from carrying out his sentence before his death warrant would expire.

"Due to time constraints resulting from the lateness of the court's proceedings, the execution was called off at approximately 11:20 p.m.," the Alabama Department of Corrections said in a statement emailed to UPI.

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Smith was scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. Thursday at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., but his sentence was pushed late into the night as a last-minute request for a stay was approved by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

The state then appealed to the Supreme Court, which vacated the lower court's decision with less than two hours before Smith's death warrant was to expire at 11:59 p.m. The ruling from the high court didn't offer an explanation, but said liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson would have upheld the stay.

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John Hamm, state commissioner of corrections, told reporters after the execution was canceled that they were able to connect one intravenous line to Smith but that they didn't have time to connect a second.

"Although that justice could not be carried out tonight because of last-minute legal attempts to delay or cancel the execution, attempting it was the right thing to do," Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement. "My prayers are with the victim's children and grandchildren as they are forced to relive their tragic loss."

Smith, 57, was scheduled to be executed Thursday evening for killing Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, a 45-year-old grandmother, in March of 1988.

Smith's lawyers had sought the stay on Eighth Amendment grounds that to die by lethal injection in Alabama constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, citing the state's two most recent execution attempts of Joe Nathan James on July 28 and Alan Miller on Sept. 22.

The court document states both "went horrifyingly awry," with the execution of James lasting more than three hours, making it potentially the longest execution in U.S. history.

In the case of Miller, the state failed to execute him before the warrant expired as corrections officials failed to access his veins to inject the three-drug cocktail.

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Alabama retorted that the Supreme Court should lift the stay by calling Smith's application an attempt to force a last-minute judicial emergency to increase the chances "that his execution can be delayed through sheer, cynical maneuvering."

The people of Alabama and the surviving victims of Smith's crimes "deserve better," the state argued.

The ruling came a day after the Supreme Court rejected a previous request for a stay of execution from Smith's attorneys who argued if their client's trial had occurred today, "he could not have been eligible for execution."

Smith was convicted by a jury in 1996 of murdering Sennett on April 7, 1988, in a murder-for-hire plot in exchange for $1,000. The trial jury then recommended 11-to-1 that he be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibly of parole -- a sentence that the judge overrode, handing Smith the death penalty.

In 2017, Alabama amended its law to no longer permit judicial override in capital cases.

Smith's lawyers told the Supreme Court that their client would not be sentenced to death if his trial was held today in Alabama "[n]or would he be subject to execution anywhere else in the United States, as every state that once permitted the practice of judicial override has abandoned it."

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