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Alabama Man With Cognitive Disabilities Put To Death By Lethal Injection

"Sharma Ruth Johnson was abducted at gunpoint, threatened while in the trunk of the car, terrorized, assaulted, and ultimately, Willie B. Smith, III brutally killed her," Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said in a statement.

By Dorian Geiger
Willie Smith Ap

An Alabama man with significant cognitive disabilities was put to death by lethal injection, despite his request to be executed by nitrogen hypoxia. 

Willie B. Smith III, 52, was pronounced dead at 9:47 p.m. local time at a correctional facility in southwest Alabama on Thursday, officials said. He had no last words, according to KMOV.

Smith was convicted in the 1991 murder and abduction of Sharma Ruth Johnson. 

"Sharma Ruth Johnson was abducted at gunpoint, threatened while in the trunk of the car, terrorized, assaulted, and ultimately, Willie B. Smith, III brutally killed her," Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said in a statement sent to Oxygen.com. "In that final moment of this young lady’s short life, Mr. Smith, after learning Ms. Johnson was related to a law enforcement officer, made the choice to put a shotgun to her head, stealing this woman’s future."

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall also welcomed news of Smith’s death in a prepared statement.

"The family of Sharma Johnson has had to wait 29 years, 11 months, and 25 days to see the sentence of Sharma’s murderer be carried out," Marshall stated in a statement sent to Oxygen.com. "Finally, the cruel and unusual punishment that has been inflicted upon them — a decades long denial of justice — has come to an end."

Smith’s execution marked the end of an eleventh hour court battle between Smith’s lawyers and the state over the method in which he was to be executed. Smith, who has a lower than average IQ, had requested to be executed by nitrogen gas but did not understand the directions by which to submit his request, which he made outside of the specific 30 day window. 

U.S. Chief District Judge Emily Marks previously denied a request for a preliminary injunction protesting the lethal injection sought by his lawyers. His legal team, who insisted Smith’s cognitive abilities are limited, didn’t receive the proper assistance to comprehend the prison paperwork over his execution method. The Supreme Court ultimately declined to block his execution.

Lethal injection is the primary way prisoners are executed in the state, however, lawmakers legalized nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative execution method in 2018. Gov. Ivey signed it into law in March 2018, according to the Birmingham News.

Oklahoma, and Mississippi have also legalized nitrogen hypoxia which, some officials argue, is a more effective, humane — and painless — way to carry out judicial homicide. 

In March, Oklahoma’s Attorney General referred to nitrogen gas as “the safest, the best and the most effective method available.”

Other death penalty experts, however, cautioned there is little research on nitrogen hypoxia as a form of capital punishment. 

“If and when states begin carrying out executions with nitrogen, it will amount to the same type of experimentation we see in the different variations of lethal injection,” Jen Moreno, a lawyer and lethal injection expert at the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic, told the New York Times.

A spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Corrections didn’t immediately respond to Oxygen.com on Friday.

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