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Opinion | A call for justice, not a cry for mercy for Kenneth Eugene Smith

Gov. Kay Ivey can pause Smith’s execution giving the Legislature time to decide if a 2017 law should have been retroactive.

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On Thursday, the state of Alabama is scheduled to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith for the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett. Smith was one of two men Rev. Charles Sennett paid $1,000 to kill his wife.

There is no need to feel sympathy for Smith or to extend him mercy for his heinous crime — but what he is due is justice.

Smith was convicted by a jury of his peers in 1996. The jury voted 11-1 for a sentence of life without parole. However, the trial judge overrode the jury’s decision and imposed the death penalty using the now-outlawed act of judicial override. 

The jurors in that case did not make their decision lightly. Smith was spared because the jurors found a number of mitigating factors, including his age, lack of criminal history, counseling work and undisputed remorse, outweighed the single aggravating factor, that his crime was part of a murder-for-hire plot, that would have led them to impose a death sentence.

The vote not to impose death was not a close one. 

Today, nearly 20 percent of the individuals currently on death row were sentenced to death through judicial override. Alabama is now the only state to continue the practice of executing people sentenced using judicial override. 

After years of allowing judicial overrides in capitol murder cases, the Alabama Legislature in 2017 outlawed the practice, and Gov. Kay Ivey signed the measure into law. However, the bill did not permit the law to be retroactively applied to those sentenced to death under what is now deemed an unfair practice.

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In hindsight, how is that fair? If the practice is unjust now, was it not unjust then? 

Without an intervention, Smith will be executed under a system that is no longer permissible in Alabama.

How is this justice?

There is a fair and temporary solution: Gov. Kay Ivey can pause Smith’s execution and allow the state Legislature an opportunity to decide if the 2017 law should be amended to include those who were sentenced to death by judicial override before the legislative act of 2017.

Would it not be wise to show restraint before executing Smith?

Here again, this is not a plea for mercy because his crime does not call for compassion. But if we are a state that treasures the rule of law, shouldn’t it be applied justly?

In Alabama, we have a legal process in which the justice system should seek to fairly and uniformly judge and punish crimes and criminals. There have been and will continue to be failures within the system because laws are instituted by humans, but through legislation, those errors of the past are corrected with new laws.

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Ivey is neither a fool nor soft on crime. She is a rock-ribbed conservative who does what she believes is right without hesitation.

Based on recent missteps in Alabama’s Department of Corrections’ attempts to execute by lethal injection, and the anomalies in Alabama’s death penalty laws, it makes sense to call for a temporary pause.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee paused executions last May in the state to review lethal injections after the state had failed to ensure its lethal injection drugs were adequately tested. 

Alabama’s execution of Joe Nathan James by lethal injection was fraught with horrific problems. James’ execution was reportedly the longest in history at nearly three hours. His killing calls into question the Department of Corrections’ ability to effectively manage an execution that doesn’t constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

The recently attempted execution of Adam Eugene Miller was halted after DOC couldn’t find a vein.

When a state takes a life, even when justified by law, it assumes a grave responsibility on the part of its citizens because the execution is done in the name of the citizens. And acting upon the people’s will, both the Legislature and Ivey deemed judicial override to be improper. 

Justice, not vengeance, is at the heart of the law and therefore must be fair and without doubt.

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It will not cost the state nor deny a righteous outcome to pause Smith’s execution, but it will give time for the Legislature to review its 2017 legislation to decide how it should be fairly applied. It will also give DOC time to carry out executions without cruelty and mistakes.

This is not a cry for mercy, but a call for justice.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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