MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama inmate on Friday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay his upcoming execution to consider whether a judge should have been able to give him a death sentence when the jury recommended life imprisonment.
Ronald Bert Smith is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection next Thursday for the 1994 slaying of Huntsville convenience store clerk Casey Wilson. A jury recommended life imprisonment without parole by a 7-5 vote, but a judge sentenced Smith to death.
"Alabama is the only state that allows a judge to sentence a defendant to death when the jury has recommended a sentence of life," lawyers for Smith wrote in the petition, noting that Florida and Delaware abolished that capability this year.
The petition could put the issue of judicial override before the court.
The U.S. Supreme Court in January struck down Florida's similar sentencing structure because it gave too much power to judges. Justices ruled that "the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death."
Smith's lawyers argued that Alabama's death penalty structure is also unconstitutional because an Alabama jury can recommend a sentence of life without parole, but a judge can override that recommendation and impose a death sentence.
"This life-and-death decision is being made by judges facing intense electoral pressure," Smith's lawyers wrote.
However, the Alabama attorney general's office has argued there are differences that make Alabama's process legal. In Alabama, unlike Florida, the jury must find that an aggravating circumstance existed — such as a murder committed during a robbery — to convict a person of a crime that is eligible for the death penalty.
"Because the jury's guilt-phase finding established the existence of an aggregating circumstance, the jury made the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty in Smith's case," lawyers for the state wrote in a Nov. 22 brief with the Alabama Supreme Court. The state court ruled the execution could proceed.
Wilson was beaten and shot through the head during the robbery of the convenience store where he worked. Surveillance video recorded Smith entering the store and recovering spent shell casings from the bathroom where Wilson was shot.
Smith's defense attorneys told jurors that Smith was an Eagle Scout and high school honor student who struggled with life and alcoholism after entering college. In a clemency petition to the Alabama governor, Smith's attorneys included an affidavit from a juror who said she noted Smith's background and said she believed alcoholism clouded Smith's judgment and that his education could be put to use helping others in prison.
Judge Lynwood Smith, now a federal judge, sentenced Smith to death, calling Wilson's murder a heinous killing that left an infant fatherless. In handing down the sentence, the judge also noted that, unlike many other criminal court defendants, Ronald Smith came from a middle-class background that afforded him opportunities but he chose to "wallow in the gutter."
Alabama has been attempting to resume executions after a lull caused by a shortage of execution drugs and litigation over the drugs used.
The state executed Christopher Eugene Brooks in January for the 1993 rape and beating death of a woman. It was the state's first execution since 2013.