Alabama executes convicted killer after legal wrangle
A man convicted of killing a convenience store clerk more than two decades ago in Alabama has been put to death in the state's second execution of the year.
Ronald Bert Smith Jr, 45, was pronounced dead after a lethal injection at the state prison in south-west Alabama.
US Supreme Court justices twice paused the execution as Smith's lawyers argued for a delay, saying a judge should not have been able to impose the death penalty when a jury recommended he receive life imprisonment.
Four liberal justices said they would have halted the execution, but five were needed to do so.
Smith was convicted of capital murder over the shooting death of Huntsville store clerk Casey Wilson on November 8 1994.
A jury voted seven to five to recommend a sentence of life in prison, but a judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Smith to death.
Mr Wilson was pistol-whipped and then shot in the head during the robbery, court documents show.
Surveillance video showed Smith entering the store and recovering spent shell casings from the toilet where Mr Wilson was shot, according to the record.
Smith's lawyers had urged the nation's highest court to block the planned execution to review the judge's override.
They argued a January decision that struck down Florida's death penalty structure because it gave too much power to judges raises legal questions about Alabama's process.
In Alabama, a jury can recommend a sentence of life without parole, but a judge can override that recommendation to impose a death sentence. Alabama is the only state that allows judicial override, they argued.
"Alabama is alone among the states in allowing a judge to sentence someone to death based on judicial fact-finding contrary to a jury's verdict," lawyers for Smith wrote.
Lawyers for the state argued in a court filing that the sentence was legally sound, and that it is appropriate for judges to make the sentencing decision.
"A juror's sentencing decision is likely to be the only decision about criminal punishment he or she will ever make, and it will come at the end of an emotionally draining trial, which will often be the first and only such trial a juror will have seen," lawyers for the state wrote.
Judge Lynwood Smith, now a federal judge, sentenced Smith to death. He likened the killing to an execution, saying the store clerk was beaten into submission before being shot in the head in a crime that left an infant fatherless.
In overriding the jury's recommendation, the judge also noted in court records that, unlike many other criminal court defendants, Smith came from a middle-class background that afforded him opportunities.
In a clemency petition to state governor Robert Bentley, Smith's lawyers said he was an Eagle Scout at 15 and was the son of a Nasa contract employee whose life spiralled downwards because of alcoholism and emotional scars from an abusive home environment.
Smith had a final meal of fried chicken and was visited during the day by his parents and son.
Alabama has been attempting to resume executions after a lull caused by a shortage of execution drugs and litigation over the drugs used.
The state executed Christopher Eugene Brooks in January for the 1993 rape and beating death of a woman. It was the state's first execution since 2013. Judges stayed two other executions that had been scheduled this year.