Alabama to restrict press access to cover death row inmate Willie B. Smith III’s execution in October

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (WIAT) – Alabama officials have said they will limit press access to the October 21 execution of Willie B. Smith III, on death row nearly 30 years after being convicted of murder of a woman.

In a court document filed earlier this year, attorneys for the state said only one member of the media, a representative of the Associated Press, would be allowed to witness the execution. The state cited concerns about the spread of COVID-19 as the reason for the press restriction. In previous executions, six members of the press, chosen through a structured lottery, were allowed to enter the witness room.

In 1991, Smith was convicted of murdering Sharma Ruth Johnson, the sister of a Birmingham police detective, when he was 22.

Paige Oliver Windsor, editor-in-chief of USA Today and editor-in-chief of the Montgomery Advertiser, said Alabama Department of Corrections policy is expected to change, in part given the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“These concerns about the transmission of COVID, raised before a vaccine was widely available, are no longer reason enough to restrict access to the press,” Windsor said. “The state has other means of protecting those present and should be obliged to do so. There is no act of state more serious than assassination in the name of the public. This is how a free press ensures that the affairs of the public are conducted according to the rules, it is to report on all aspects of these proceedings – from the moment the convict enters the chamber until that he be declared dead. “

The regulations described in the state court file state that visitors will be required to wear both masks and face shields while at the facility.

Brad English, director of marketing and government relations at the Alabama Press Association, said the decision to limit attendance in the witness room to an AP reporter will significantly reduce media representation at a time when officials wield one of their most controversial powers. The English organization represents independent newspapers across the state.

“Few, if any, of the Alabama Press Association are members of the PA,” he said.

Dennis Bailey, attorney for the Alabama Press Association, said another issue with the restriction is that prison officials chose the PA to attend without input from other news outlets.

“When the space does not allow all who wish to have access to it and the government defines who has access to these spaces, you are going to have a problem because those favored by the government may seem to have preference over those who criticize it. government entity. “Bailey said.” Any media event with limited space (now more limited due to COVID) where the government chooses who can attend is problematic unless it uses screening methods, which press will attending is generally okay to be fair. “

Dan Shelley, executive director and chief operating officer of the Radio Television Digital News Association, echoed Bailey’s concerns about explicitly choosing the AP ADOC over other outlets to cover the execution.

“There are clear concerns that the state is exercising an arbitrary and closed process to select its only designated journalist witness,” Shelley said in an email. “The state has an obligation to be transparent and inclusive when setting the ground rules for the conduct of its official affairs, especially when it comes to carrying out the harshest criminal sentences in the justice system. . ”

Shelley said that while COVID-19 presents a “legitimate public health concern … the state should do everything possible to grant access to as many witness journalists as possible in the safest manner possible. “

Smith’s planned execution has already sparked national interest. In February, the United States Supreme Court authorized a stay preventing his execution from remaining in place while Smith asked the courts to force Alabama to allow its pastor to enter the execution room. Authorities previously allowed a Christian pastor on the team to attend the executions, but prison officials ended the practice when a Muslim man requested that an imam be present for his death.

Since then, state attorneys have agreed to leave Smith’s pastor in the execution room, a change that saw them successfully secure an Oct. 21 execution date from the Supreme Court of the Alabama.

Court documents show Smith has an IQ of around 70, which classifies him as “intellectually disabled,” according to the American Psychiatric Association. In a 2002 case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the execution of people with such disabilities was “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the United States Constitution.

The method by which Smith was found eligible for execution was also found to be unconstitutional, in a case called Moore v. Texas, but the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals said the decision came too late to impact Smith.

“What is tragic about Mr Smith’s case is that the decision of whether his poor intellectual functioning makes him ineligible for the death penalty was based on outdated and flawed analysis,” said Equal Justice Initiative, a not-for-profit organization based in Montgomery. “It is a simple technical matter that the Supreme Court established the appropriate scientific analysis in 2017, but the Eleventh Circuit nonetheless ruled that Moore did not apply to Mr. Smith’s case because it was decided after the ruling. state court. The court wrote that his denial of relief on Mr. Smith’s claim was “a matter of timing.”

CBS 42 has contacted the Associated Press, the Alabama Media Group and the Alabama Broadcasters Association about this story, but has not received a response.

Update: After this article was published, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed directly to CBS 42 that it plans to allow only one representative of AP to attend the execution. “As per our current enforcement measures at Holman Correctional Facility during the COVID-19 pandemic, only one (1) Associated Press media representative will be permitted to testify,” said Kristi Simpson, spokesperson. word of the acting department in a press release. E-mail.


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