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How long can executions be delayed?

The Supreme Court denied the appeal of a Florida inmate on death row for 32 years.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 12, 2009

Thirty-two years is a long time for a death-row inmate to contemplate his pending execution. But is it so long that it violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment?

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That was the issue at the heart of an appeal filed at the US Supreme Court on behalf of Florida death-row inmate William Lee Thompson.

This week, the high court announced that it would not take up Mr. Thompson's case. The denial touched off a heated debate among three justices, including a harsh critique of capital punishment in America by Justice John Paul Stevens.

The exchange took place in written comments about the dismissed appeal. In addition to Justice Stevens, Justices Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas submitted comments.

The exchange offers insight into what may be an intensifying disagreement between the liberal and conservative wings of the high court over the future direction of the Supreme Court's death-penalty jurisprudence.

For 14 years, Justices Stevens and Breyer have been urging the court to hear cases examining whether long delays in carrying out executions amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Stevens first made the suggestion in the 1995 appeal of Texas death-row inmate Clarence Lackey. His execution had been pending for 17 years. In 1999, Stevens and Breyer urged the court to take up appeals involving two Florida inmates on death row 25 and 27 years.

"Today, condemned inmates await execution for an average of nearly 13 years," Stevens said in his written statement on the Thompson case. "This figure underscores the fundamental inhumanity and unworkability of the death penalty as it is administered in the United States."

Justice Thomas responded that the 32-year delay in Thompson's execution is the result of legal efforts by Thompson to overturn his death sentence.

"It makes a mockery of our system of justice ... for a convicted murderer, who, through his own interminable efforts of delay ... has secured the almost indefinite postponement of his sentence, to then claim that the almost-indefinite postponement renders his sentence unconstitutional," Thomas wrote. "It is incongruous to arm capital defendants with an arsenal of 'constitutional' claims with which they may delay their executions, and simultaneously to complain when executions are inevitably delayed."

"It is a real bind for the court," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. "This is a very difficult problem to resolve short of ending the death penalty."