An Alabama man convicted of murder 30 years ago was granted a last-minute stay of execution Thursday, after the US Supreme Court ruled that barring his priest from being by his side during his death was unlawful.
Willie Smith, 52, was convicted of the 1991 killing of a 22-year-old woman in Birmingham, the most populous city in the southern state, after robbing her at gunpoint at an ATM.
Smith's lawyers over the decades have challenged his death sentence, arguing he has a below-average mental capacity.
As the execution date approached, lawyers filed a fresh slew of appeals challenging the fact Smith's personal chaplain would not be allowed in the death chamber for security reasons and challenging protocol changes prison authorities adopted because of Covid-19.
Smith had asked that his pastor be by his side during his execution, to ease what he called the "transition between the worlds of the living and the dead".
A federal court ruled in his favor Wednesday, issuing a temporary stay of execution, but Alabama authorities filed another appeal the following day with the US Supreme Court.
A majority of the Supreme Court rejected that appeal in a decision late Thursday, ruling that the state "cannot now execute Smith without his pastor present."
"The law guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference, including at the moment the State puts him to death," Justice Elena Kagan wrote.
Conservative justices Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, and John Roberts disagreed with the decision. Two remaining jurists did not disclose how they voted.
And despite the ruling, legal observers said the execution could still go ahead at a later date, though the state's execution warrant expired at midnight US central time on Thursday.
"Alabama likely can execute Smith IF the state allows his spiritual adviser in the chamber," Supreme Court-watching blog SCOTUSblog tweeted.
If it had gone ahead, the execution would have been the first time a US state had carried out the death penalty in 2021.
Former president Donald Trump's administration resumed federal executions last July, carrying out 13 death-penalty sentences in seven months, including three in January.
Federal executions have been paused under President Joe Biden, who opposes the death penalty.
Capital punishment has been abolished in 22 states, while three others -- California, Oregon and Pennsylvania -- have observed a moratorium on its use.
An independent monitor in December last year said that executions of prisoners in the US have reached a 29-year low in 2020.