The Supreme Court, among its other responsibilities, is the court of last resort for prisoners about to be executed in the states that still utilize capital punishment. And these last few weeks have been busy ones for the justices in the death penalty department. Of the 17 emergency applications the Supreme Court has "considered (and denied) over the first six weeks of its October 2022 term, eight have sought a stay of an impending execution," University of Texas law professor Steve Vladek noted Thursday.
Four of those terse denials to block executions were issued over a 24 hour period from Wednesday morning to Thursday morning, when the Supreme Court rejected final appeals from death row inmates Murray Hooper in Arizona, Stephen Barber in Texas, Kenneth Smith in Alabama, and Richard Fairchild in Oklahoma, Amy Howe reported at SCOTUSblog — and SCOTUSblog editor James Romoser highlighted.
Hooper and Barbee were executed Wednesday, Fairchild was put to death Thursday, and Smith's Thursday execution was delayed after executioners couldn't find usable veins to inject the lethal cocktail before the execution order expired at midnight, following another flurry of appeals.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had put a stay on Smith's execution Thursday night just after 8 p.m., agreeing that his claims of unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment and due process violations merited consideration. The Supreme Court lifted that stay without explanation two hours later — the court's fifth green light of an execution in two days but its "first grant of emergency relief" this term, Vladek notes, with dissents from Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
The Smith appeal the Supreme Court rejected on Wednesday had to do with the fact that Smith's jury had voted 11-1 for life in prison but the trial judge overruled them and sentenced him to death under a system Alabama repealed in 2017, without making it retroactive. Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman (D) said carrying out Smith's execution "just doesn't make sense."
Current Gov. Kay Ivey (R) disagreed. "The Legislature specifically preserved existing death sentences even while making necessary adjustments to our sentencing laws" in 2017, she said, and while "justice could not be carried out tonight because of last minute legal attempts to delay or cancel the execution, attempting it was the right thing to do."