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Supreme Court rejects Alabama’s bid to use lethal injection against inmates’ wishes


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday rejected Alabama’s bid to execute a death row inmate by lethal injection, leaving in place a lower court ruling that his preference for lethal gas is a viable alternative method.

Kenneth Smith, who was sentenced to death for murdering Elizabeth Sennett in 1988, objected to being executed by lethal injection because of the pain it would cause. He claimed it would violate his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

Kenneth Eugene Smith was convicted of a 1988 murder-for-hire killing of a preacher’s wife. Alabama Department of Corrections via AP

Smith suggested lethal gas instead.

The Atlanta-based 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Smith in November, saying that because the state has authorized the use of lethal gas, Smith could seek an alternative method of execution.

The appeals court ruling was issued the same day the state tried unsuccessfully to execute Smith by lethal injection. Officials halted the execution after struggling to insert an intravenous line before the death sentence expired at midnight. The Supreme Court, which regularly allows executions to take place, had previously allowed the execution to go ahead.

Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito said they would have ruled in favor of the state.

“When the question is whether the Eighth Amendment requires a state to substitute an alternative method for its chosen method of executing the plaintiff, it is simply irrelevant, without more that the state statutes permit the use of the alternative method that must take place. sometime in the indefinite future,” Thomas wrote.

Alabama officials say that while lethal gas was approved as an execution method in 2018, an execution protocol has not been finalized. That gave the inmates 30 days to choose an alternative method, an option Smith did not choose at the time, the state says.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall is disappointed by the Supreme Court’s action, and his office is “reviewing the decision to determine next steps,” spokeswoman Amanda Priest said.

Smith’s attorney, Robert Grass, declined to comment. He said in court papers that the state already plans to execute other death row inmates using lethal gas.

A lethal injection chamber in Alabama.Dave Martin/AP file

The case follows a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that rejected a challenge to the lethal injection protocol used by Oklahoma.

The court then made it clear that if an inmate wishes to challenge the method of execution, he must show that there is a feasible alternative that can be easily implemented.

In a follow-up case in 2019, the court ruled in favor of a convicted murderer in Missouri who tried to die by lethal gas instead of lethal injection because of a rare medical condition, saying prisoners were not guaranteed “a painless death.”

Death penalty advocates have been critical of lawyers who file last-minute motions in an attempt to delay executions. During oral arguments in the 2015 case, Alito referred to it as “a guerrilla war against the death penalty.”

There have been nine executions in the United States so far this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

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