Alabama only state to limit media to 1 witness at execution

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama will be the third state to carry out an execution during the COVID-19 pandemic and will be the only prison system to reduce the number of news media witnesses to a single reporter.

The Alabama Department of Corrections said because of COVID-19 precautions only one reporter, a representative of The Associated Press, will be allowed to witness Thursday's lethal injection of Willie B. Smith. The state in the past allowed five media witnesses, although the number of outlets sending reporters is sometimes less than that.

Only the federal government, Texas, and Missouri have carried out executions since the pandemic began last year. None reduced the number of media witnesses to a single reporter.

There have been 19 executions carried out since April of 2020, according to a database maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center. All of them were attended by multiple reporters with the exception of one lethal injection in Texas where the prison system neglected to notify reporters it was time to carry out the punishment.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the media serves an “irreplaceable function” as "the public’s witnesses and play a vital role in holding states accountable when executions visibly go wrong.”

“If an execution is not safe enough to be witnessed by the full complement of reporters, the remedy is not to decrease accountability and increase secrecy by excluding media witnesses who would otherwise be permitted to attend. If an execution is not safe enough for witnesses, it is not safe enough to go forward at all,” Dunham wrote in an email.

Paige Windsor, the executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, said the news organization disagreed "that the press restrictions were necessary for COVID mitigation, especially once a vaccine was available.”

“We object to any laws, procedures or practices that limit press coverage of state business, particularly when that business involves killing a human being in the public’s name. Reporting on all aspects of these proceedings is how a free press ensures the public’s business is carried out as prescribed,” Windsor said in an emailed statement.

The Alabama Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. The prison system wrote in a media advisory issued Monday that the number of witnesses were being limited, “due to measures necessary because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

It is the same procedure and witness restrictions the state planned to use at Smith's original execution date in February. That execution was called off by the state.

Two reporters witnessed the two executions carried out in Missouri during the pandemic. And two or more reporters witnessed the executions in Texas, with the exception of the May lethal injection of Quintin Jones. Two reporters had been set to witness the execution, but a prison spokesperson never received the usual telephone call to bring them to the execution chamber.

Thirteen of the 19 executions were carried out by the federal government. The AP served as the national media pool, providing coverage to other outlets, but local news outlets also witnessed the executions. An AP analysis earlier this year found that those executions may have acted as a superspreader event for COVID-19 infections.

Most states have not carried out death sentences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smith is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection for the 1991 kidnapping and killing of Sharma Ruth Johnson, 22. Prosecutors said Smith abducted Johnson at gunpoint from an ATM in Birmingham, stole $80 from her and then took her to a cemetery where he shot her in the back of the head.

Smith's attorneys on Tuesday asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to block the lethal injection, arguing the intellectually disabled inmate could not understand the prison paperwork that laid the groundwork for the planned lethal injection.

Lethal injection is the main execution method used in Alabama. But after lawmakers authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method in 2018, the new law gave death row inmates a 30-day window to select nitrogen hypoxia as their execution method.

Nitrogen hypoxia is a proposed execution method in which an inmate would breathe only nitrogen, thus depriving him or her of oxygen, causing unconsciousness and then death. Three states have approved it as an execution method, but it has never been used.

Smith did not turn in a form selecting nitrogen, paving the way for the state to execute him next week by lethal injection. The state has not developed a procedure for using nitrogen as an execution method, and at least for now is not scheduling executions with nitrogen hypoxia.

“I did not understand the Election Form because I'm slow and have trouble reading,” Smith said, according to a declaration filed with the emergency request for a preliminary injunction.