Press Release

Alabama prisoner to Supreme Court: let me pray with my pastor at the hour of my death High Court to consider comfort of clergy for prisoner in execution chamber

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

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WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court is now considering an Alabama prisoner’s request to have access to a clergy member of his faith in the chamber during his execution for prayer and spiritual guidance. The Alabama Department of Corrections has banned all clergy from the execution chamber, depriving prisoners like Willie Smith from praying with a clergy member during their final moments. Smith’s execution was scheduled for today, but late last night a federal appeals court ordered Alabama to allow Smith’s pastor to enter the chamber. Alabama has now asked the Supreme Court to reverse that decision and allow the execution to go forward without comfort of clergy.

“Allowing clergy to be present for condemned prisoners at the moment of death is an ancient and common practice, one that Alabama is familiar with,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “In fact, until 2019, Alabama not only allowed but required clergy in the death chamber. That shows Alabama is less concerned about security than it is about litigation tactics.”

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Dunn v. Smith in support of Smith’s request for Pastor Robert Paul Wiley, Jr. to accompany him to the gurney. Becket pointed out that most of the prisoners who were executed in the United States over the last year were allowed to have a clergy member of their choice present in the execution chamber. If the federal government and other states have been able to offer this religious accommodation, Alabama should be able to as well. In fact, Alabama required clergy in the chamber until 2019, when it changed its requirement as a result of prisoner litigation requesting equal treatment. In Murphy v. Collier, a Buddhist prisoner requested that his spiritual advisor be available instead of the Christian or Muslim chaplains that the prison provided. When the Supreme Court required equal treatment for all faiths, Alabama banned all clergy from the death chamber, even its own prison chaplains.

“The Constitution and federal law require more than equal treatment, they require that prisoners be allowed to exercise their sincere religious faith whenever possible,” said Verm. “That includes allowing clergy to pray with prisoners as they cross over into death.”

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit required Alabama to allow clergy into the execution chamber, likely delaying the execution that was scheduled for today. Alabama has asked the Supreme Court to reverse that order.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.