2 administrations, 16 deaths: Governors reflect on the death penalty ahead of Willie B. Smith’s execution on Thursday

Regional News

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — As Alabama governors, Republican Robert Bentley and Democrat Don Siegelman presided over 16 executions: eight each. Years after the ends of their respective administrations, Bentley and Siegelman’s positions on the death penalty have evolved, with both former state leaders saying they have serious concerns with the practice of putting prisoners to death.

In separate interviews just days before death row inmate Willie B. Smith is scheduled to be executed, the two governors reflected on their own roles in the death penalty, their views on the issue and how they may have changed, and what it’s like to live with the difficult decisions they’ve made.

Governor Don Siegelman: “Horror stories,” a tour, and a change of heart

Under Gov. Siegelman, the electric chair was the state’s primary means of execution. Seven of the eight deaths he presided over were conducted using the method.

At one point during his time in office, motivated by hearing “horror stories” out of Holman, the prison where executions are still carried out, Siegelman took a tour of death row.

“I’ll never, ever forget the faces I saw on death row and the conditions under which they were living,” Siegelman said.

The governor, who had also served as attorney general, was given a demonstration of how the electric chair worked.

“They put it in gear for me – ginned up the generator,” he said. “And I was struck by the — I was frightened — by the sound, and I know that the inmates on death row had to be likewise frightened even though it was a dry run.”

Nonetheless, Siegelman said that carrying out executions was his obligation as attorney general and, later, governor.

Now, though, Siegelman said his views have changed. A pivotal moment in this shift was Siegelman’s own legal troubles.

“When I was convicted of something that I knew hadn’t happened, I said quiet prayers,” he said. “Some of the faces and names of those people who were executed during my term as governor flashed before me. I shuddered at the thought of — had I made a mistake. I asked God to forgive me.”

He said he’s now “studied” the “criminal justice system extensively,” and said that carrying out the state’s highest form of punishment is wrong for multiple reasons.

The first reason is that Siegelman believes serving life in prison is a worse punishment than death.

“If you want to punish someone for a crime, you don’t want to put them out of misery,” he said.

Siegelman also sees problems with the criminal justice system that may impact the fairness of the processes that lead to the execution of an inmate.

“We need to rethink the death penalty,” he said. “It makes no sense.”

As for the executions he allowed to move forward as the state’s top official, Siegelman said the deaths “still do not sit well” with him.

“If I knew then what I know now, they wouldn’t be executed,” he said.

Governor Robert Bentley: “I believe in life”

Republican Gov. Robert Bentley also presided over eight executions during his time in office from 2011 to 2017. All were lethal injections.

Bentley, who is a doctor, said he “agonized” over every execution because he felt his duty to “do no harm” conflicted with his role in administering what Justice Harry Blackmun called “the machinery of death.”

“I struggled with it,” he said. “It was a very difficult situation, but I was also sworn as the governor of the state. So I was put in the situation as a physician, as governor, and I had to decide which route I had to go. And at that time, I was the governor, and so I had to make those decisions.”

Although Bentley’s views have clearly evolved since his time in office, he stopped just short of saying he now opposes the death penalty, saying he’s “torn.”

He did say, though, that his Christian values make him question the practice, which he thinks is “inconsistent” with a pro-life worldview.

“I am pro-life: I don’t believe in abortions. I don’t believe in euthanasia. I believe in life,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has the right to take somebody else’s life.”

He also said that’s it’s unclear the death penalty works as a deterrent for crime.

“Do people consider that when they commit crimes? I certainly do not think they do,” he said. “Most of them are under the influence or they’re angry, but they don’t think about the death penalty.”

Like Siegelman, Bentley said a life sentence may also be a worse punishment than death. “It’s something to think about,” he said.

Neither Siegelman or Bentley met with a death row inmate while in office. Both governors also denied every request for clemency they received.

Bentley said aside from a case that has since been overturned in the courts, he came close to granting a reprieve only once.

“It was a young man who killed a baby,” Bentley said, referring to the case of Christopher Thomas Johnson, who was convicted of murdering his six-month-old son Elias Ocean Johnson.

“I just wondered if it was an accident,” Bentley said. “He felt so guilty about it — said that he didn’t want any appeals of his case. He wanted to be put to death. I questioned that.”

Ultimately, Bentley decided to let the execution go through. Johnson was put to death 20 years ago this Wednesday.

Overall, Bentley said he believes the information provided to a governor to help decide whether to move forward with an execution is biased in favor of the prosecution.

“Much of the material that was brought to me was from the prosecutors,” he said. “It was somewhat one-sided.”

He said the process would be fairer if more complete, balanced information was reviewed by governors ahead of the final decision to go through with a particular execution.

Bentley said that ultimately, it may be better to have more than one person bear the responsibility of reviewing capital cases.

“Maybe you should have an advisory panel decision,” Bentley said.

Decisions about the death penalty are never easy for a governor. Last year, Gov. Kay Ivey was confronted by the sister of Nathaniel Woods, a man executed by Ivey’s administration.

“You killed my brother,” Pamela Woods told Ivey in front of members of the press. “Gov. Ivey, you killed my brother. He’s an innocent man.”

As Ivey was whisked away by staff, Woods yelled after her. “Murderer,” she yelled at the governor’s back. “Murderer.”

Bentley said that he can’t speak for other governors, but that if he were confronted by the family member of an executed inmate, he would try to have sympathy.

“You apologize for what happened, but they have to realize we’re put in a situation where you had you had to do it,” he said. “You’re sworn to uphold the Constitution of the State of Alabama. So you had to execute the laws of the state. That’s what the chief executive of the state does. But you still could sympathize with the family. You could empathize with them. Tell them how sorry you were that happened, and I think that’s all you can do.”

The case of Willie B. Smith

Both governors discussed the case of Willie B. Smith, a mentally handicapped Black man scheduled to be executed Thursday, Oct. 21, for the murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson.

Siegelman and Bentley said that executing Smith raises serious questions.

The governors both cited Smith’s mental “deficiency” (he has an IQ of 70) as one reason the execution should be reconsidered.

“If you were a young child and were mentally challenged, obviously, you wouldn’t be in jail, they wouldn’t do anything to you,” Bentley said. “I just think that the mental capacity of an individual should come into play.”

Siegelman said he is not in the business of telling another governor what to do but said he’s made his opinion on Smith’s case – and other death penalty cases – clear.

“And if Governor Ivey asked, or if someone on her team asked my opinion, I would certainly offer that. This is something that touches people deeply and emotionally and from a spiritual standpoint. As it touched me, I’m sure it also touches Gov. Ivey. I’m sure she does not take these things lightly.”

Asked about prison officials citing COVID-19 in limiting press access to witness Smith’s death, Bentley said he supports robust media representation when executions take place.

“This case should not be any different from any other,” he said. “They can’t use COVID as an excuse.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

TRENDING STORIES