Former Gov. Don Siegelman is calling on Alabama leaders, including Gov. Kay Ivey, to stop the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith on Thursday, saying that he hoped Ivey and others don’t have to live with similar regrets to those he now faces over his decisions not to intervene during some executions while he was governor.
Siegelman made the comments during an interview on the Alabama Politics This Week Podcast, for an episode that will be released Thursday morning. During a lengthy segment, the former governor said his time in federal prison and his conviction – which he, and many others, still maintains was politically motivated – opened his eyes to the “many injustices of the system.”
“I did not grant clemency,” Siegelman said of his time as governor. “When I heard the word ‘guilty,’ I almost immediately thought of those people who had come to me and asked me to save them. I said a quiet prayer for them and for my failures as governor to not do what I could.
“It is not an easy thing to live with.”
Siegelman said he and another attorney recently worked with a class at Georgetown law school to dig into the statistics related to the death penalty and also had the class dig into the people who requested clemency from him. The results, he said, were not easy to swallow.
In addition to showing that for every eight executions there is one innocent person on death row exonerated, Siegelman said the class uncovered the dark history of how we ended up with judicial override – a process by which a judge can override the wishes of a jury and sentence someone to death – and non-unanimous jury verdicts.
“They are relics of Jim Crow,” the former governor said. “When Black people in the South, particularly, earned the right to vote and serve on juries, the white people in charge saw that they were unlikely to go along with putting (undeserving) Black people to death. So they created these workarounds.”
Siegelman pointed out that federal courts have now determined that both processes violate the constitution and that Alabama has passed a law doing away with judicial override. That’s particularly important in Smith’s case, since he is one of just 31 people on Alabama’s death row who is there because of judicial override.
“The simple fact is that this gentleman – and I know that might anger some people, calling someone convicted of murder a ‘gentleman,’ but he is still a human being – but he should not be on death row,” Siegelman said. “The jury in his case voted 11-1 for life in prison and to spare him. But we didn’t make the law we passed retroactive. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Siegelman said he hopes Ivey, or a federal court, will step in at some point and do the right thing. If they don’t, he said he believes they will live to regret it.