From The Tribune staff reports
MONTGOMERY — The man convicted in the 1991 kidnapping and murder of a Trussville woman narrowly escaped being put to death in February of this year. But despite an ongoing court battle, he now has a new execution date.
Willie B. Smith III was to be put to death on Feb. 11, 2021, in the death of Sharma Ruth Johnson. The U.S. Supreme Court stopped the execution last minute after attorneys for Smith requested for him to have his pastor with him in the death chamber.
The state has now set a new execution date of Oct. 21, 2021, although he has a trial to determine if he is mentally capable enough to be executed, set for 2022.
Johnson was only 22-years old when she was abducted from an ATM off Parkway East after being set up by Smith, who was also 22 at the time, and a 17-year-old girl. That teen, Angelica Willis, was originally charged with capital murder as well but testified against Smith as part of a plea deal.
Willis said Smith directed her to ask Johnson for directions to a fast-food restaurant on the night of Oct. 26, 1991. The two had no relationship with the victim and simply picked her to be the victim in the random crime.
When Willis asked Johnson where Krystal’s Hamburgers was located, Johnson said she did not know. At that time, Smith approached the car with a sawed-off shotgun and demanded Johnson get in the trunk of the car. The two suspects then got in the car, with Smith driving and Willis in the passenger’s seat, drove to the Huffman area, then back to the ATM where they withdrew the remaining $80 from the victim’s account.
Video from the bank was used to track down the suspects. It showed the incident at the ATM happened around 1:25 a.m. on Oct. 27, 2021.
The suspects then drove to Huffman to pick up Willis’ brother. Angelica Willis testified that once her brother learned the woman was in the trunk, he taunted her. The three then drove to Zion Memorial Cemetery, where Smith shot Johnson, execution-style. Willis said before the shooting she and her brother tried to tell Smith he didn’t have to kill her. She said Smith told Johnson, “I’m going to have to kill you” because he thought she would call the police. He then shot her in the head.
A secret recording of Smith explaining to his friend what happened was later played in court.
“She said, ‘no I’m not [going to tell the police], I promise,'” Smith said in the recording while mimicking a female voice. “I said, ‘you a liar!’ Boom! then shot her in the head with that gun.”
Smith told his friend he had to shoot Johnson because her brother was a police officer.
After the shooting, the three drove the victim’s car, with her dead body in the trunk, to Roebuck. Willis testified that Smith went back later and torched the vehicle.
Willis was given a 25-year sentence in exchange for her testimony. She was released from Tutwiler Prison after serving all 25 years and has graduated from Hope Inspired Ministries, a faith-based non-profit that provides training for employment.
Smith was originally sentenced to death by the electric chair, in 1992, but that has been changed to death by lethal injection.
Smith’s attorneys claimed in 2013 that the state gave their client antipsychotic drugs during his trial, rendering him unable to show emotion. In 2019, they appealed the death sentence, saying he only has an IQ of 70. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the execution to move forward but his attorneys are continuing to fight the execution, which is now scheduled for next month.
A classmate of the victim said she remembers Johnson as quiet and kind.
“I’ve known her since seventh grade,” said Shelley Luna. “She was one of the sweetest people you would ever meet. Just very humble.”
Luna said Johnson was working as a manager at TCBY in Trussville at the time of her death. She still remembers where she was and how she felt when she heard about Johnson’s death on the news.
“For a long time, I wouldn’t go outside by myself at night, because of her death,” Luna remembered.
Sharma Ruth Johnson is now resting in peace at Jefferson Memorial Gardens, in Trussville.