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Court declines to halt execution of Alabama man whose jury voted against death penalty

In a brief order with no recorded dissents, the Supreme Court refused to block the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith, a 57-year-old inmate who is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. EST on Thursday in Alabama. Smith was convicted for the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, whom he was hired to kill by her husband, Rev. Charles Sennett.

By a vote of 11 to 1, the jury in Smith’s 1996 capital trial recommended that he be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The trial judge overrode that decision, however, and sentenced him to death. Alabama was the last state in the United States to permit judicial override in capital cases. It outlawed the practice in 2017, but not retroactively. Smith argued that his execution, greenlit by a practice that is no longer permitted anywhere in the country, would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments.

Dismissing Smith’s appeal as “extraordinary gamesmanship” to delay death, Alabama urged the justices to allow the execution to move forward. Smith’s “straight-to-the-top collateral attack on his sentence” violates state procedural rules, the state argued, and the Alabama Supreme Court properly denied his claim. Moreover, Alabama contended that the prohibition of judicial override was not evidence of a societal shift in values, as Smith argued, but rather an effect of judicial decisions rendered in the past two decades.

Smith replied that his petition was procedurally proper, as only the Alabama Supreme Court is allowed to set execution dates. Emphasizing that the abolition of judicial override in the United States reflects changes in national values, Smith reiterated his belief that the execution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Smith was the third person facing imminent execution whose request for emergency relief was rejected by the Supreme Court on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, the justices turned down final appeals from Stephen Barbee and Murray Hooper.

Recommended Citation: Angie Gou, Court declines to halt execution of Alabama man whose jury voted against death penalty, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 16, 2022, 7:25 PM),