WASHINGTON —In 1978, when he was 27, Manuel Valle killed a police officer in Coral Gables, Fla. In September, when he was 61, Mr. Valle was put to death for his crime.
A couple of hours earlier, the Supreme Court had refused to stay his execution — with one dissent. Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the 33 years Mr. Valle had spent on death row amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
Justice Breyer’s approach has historical support, and it is in line with international opinion.
“Our Constitution was written at a time when delay between sentencing and execution could be measured in days or weeks, not decades,” Justice Breyer wrote in another dissent on the same subject, this one in 1999. English law in the 18th century called for executions to take place on “the next day but one” after sentencing.
The case they are referring to is Knight v. Florida (1999), in which the argument that extreme length of time on death row, specifically 25 years or more, constituted cruel and unusual punishment, was rejected by the court. Breyer's dissent reflects the Trop test (Trop v. Dulles, 1958) regarding international opinion and the interpretation of cruel and unusual punishment.
Sarah H. Cleveland, a law professor at Columbia and a former State Department official, said there was a gap between the United States and much of the rest of the world on this point. “Although concerns about the human impact of excessive time spent on death row have received little attention in this country, the ‘death row phenomenon’ — including lengthy time on death row — has been recognized as inhuman punishment and illegal throughout Europe since the 1980s,” she said in an e-mail.Of course, the pro-death penalty types are quick to challenge the notion that length of time in solitary confinement (death row) is cruel or unusual.
Justice Thomas, in a concurrence in the Knight case:
“I am unaware of any support in the American constitutional tradition or in this court’s precedent for the proposition that a defendant can avail himself of the panoply of appellate and collateral procedures and then complain when his execution is delayed.”There is even a quote from my favorite pro-death penalty blogger.
“It is a very strange argument to say that a murderer can delay justice with protracted appeals for decades and then turn around and claim his own delay as a reason to escape his deserved punishment altogether,” said Kent Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.Right, even though there is ample evidence to suggest that it is not just the "murderer" tying things up in appeals, but the states attorneys who, in defeat, pursue endless appeal after appeal to get the guy dead. Not to mention, the glacial speed at which our courts, judges and staff work.
It also leads to a conundrum the pro-death types are unable to rectify regarding exoneration: that the system which supposedly "works" by freeing the innocent before they are executed, is somehow broken because it takes endless decades of appeals to establish that point. As Breyer puts it, "the difficulty of reconciling the imposition of the death penalty as currently administered with procedures necessary to assure that the wrong person is not executed."
I guess the pro-death types are for appeals, unless they are against appeals.
Regardless, Breyer is spot on, and has been spot on since 1999. Too bad the other justices on the court (left or right) don't concur.