Alabama sets February execution date for man in 1991 killing

December 2, 2020 GMT

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama on Tuesday set a February execution date for a man convicting of the 1991 killing of a woman abducted near an automatic teller machine and later found shot in a cemetery.

The Alabama Supreme Court ordered that 51-year-old Willie B. Smith III be put to death on Feb. 11 for the shotgun slaying of Sharma Ruth Johnson.

Prosecutors said Smith abducted Johnson at gunpoint in October 1991 as she waited to use an ATM machine in Birmingham, forced her into the trunk of a car and withdrew $80 using her bank card. Prosecutors said he then took her to a cemetery where he shot her in the back of the head and later returned to set the car on fire.

A jury convicted Smith in 1992 in the death of Johnson, who was the sister of a Birmingham police detective.


Appellate courts rejected Smith’s claims on appeal, including that his lawyers provided ineffective assistance at trial and that he shouldn’t be executed because he is intellectually disabled. Court records indicate a defense team expert estimated his IQ at 64 while a prosecution expert pegged it at 72.

The Alabama attorney general’s office said Smith has exhausted his appeals.

“The murder of Ms. Johnson, which was committed during the course of a robbery and kidnapping, was as brutal as they come, and there is no doubt that Smith committed those offenses,” the attorney general’s office wrote in the motion seeking an execution date.

Alabama uses lethal injection to carry out most death sentences.

Attorneys for Smith have an ongoing lawsuit against the state prison system challenging the lethal injection procedure as unconstitutionally cruel. They also argued Smith’s intellectual disability prevented him from understanding what was at stake when the state gave inmates a short window to select hydrogen hypoxia as their preferred execution method.

Alabama lawmakers authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, but the prison system has not developed a protocol for carrying out execution’s that way.