Press Release

Supreme Court allows pastoral comfort for condemned in execution chamber Alabama prisoner allowed to pray with pastor before death

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

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WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court denied Alabama’s request to overturn a lower court’s order granting a death row prisoner the right to have his pastor accompany him to the death chamber. The Alabama Department of Corrections has banned all clergy from the death chamber, depriving prisoners like Willie Smith from praying with a clergy member during their final moments. Smith’s execution was scheduled for last night, but a federal appeals court ordered Alabama to allow Smith’s pastor in the death chamber, and the Supreme Court upheld that decision.

Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Barrett, agreed with the Court’s decision, writing that “past practice, in Alabama and elsewhere, shows that a prison may ensure security without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber.”

“If Willie Smith has to leave this world, he shouldn’t have to leave it all alone,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “Alabama used to know that, which is why it always required a chaplain to be with the condemned man until the end. Prisoners should be allowed to make peace with their Maker in their final moments. We are glad the Supreme Court has ensured that can happen in this case.”

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 could 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 at least equal treatment for all faiths, Alabama banned all clergy from the death chamber, even its own prison chaplains.

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit required Alabama to allow clergy into the execution chamber and the Supreme Court agreed with that decision, delaying the execution until Smith is allowed a pastor in the chamber.

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.