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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.

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In the 1990s, a British appeals court decided that in cases involving Caribbean Commonwealth countries, any execution delayed beyond five years was too long, according to Mr. Dieter. At that point, death sentences should be reduced to life sentences, the court held.

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But Dieter says the high court is unlikely to follow such an approach. "The death penalty is on a collision course with our Constitution," he says.

Much of the problem is of the Supreme Court's own making, argues Kent Scheidegger, a death penalty expert at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif. He says that Breyer concludes in his statement that flawed trial procedures are responsible for the delays in the Thompson case, not Thompson himself.

But Breyer is telling only part of the story, Mr. Scheidegger says. "The first trial was defective only because after the trial, the Supreme Court invented a new rule [for capital cases] out of whole cloth," Scheidegger says. "His trial was valid under the rules in effect at the time."

Scheidegger adds: "One of the big problems with a lot of these old cases is that for a number of years, the Supreme Court was making it up as they went along, so there had to be multiple trials of the same case. That certainly isn't the state's fault."

Stevens says that executions postponed for 20 or 30 years undercut the stated public purposes of having capital punishment – retribution and deterrence. "A punishment of death after significant delay is so totally without penological justification that it results in the gratuitous infliction of suffering," he said in his statement.

He added, "Our experience during the past three decades has demonstrated that delays in state-sponsored killings are inescapable and that executing defendants after such delays is unacceptably cruel."

Thomas criticized Stevens for refusing to confront the "gruesome nature of the crimes" committed by Thompson and others on death row.

Thompson and another man, Rocco Surace, beat, sexually abused, and tortured a young woman to death in a Miami motel room in 1976. They did it in front of a witness.

There is no doubt that both men participated in the crime. The only issue in Thompson's appeal was the sentence – whether he should spend the rest of his life in prison or be put to death.

Thomas said three different juries returned a death sentence. Thompson's capital sentence has been reviewed by judges 17 times, he added. "It is the crime – and not the punishment imposed by the jury or the delay in [Thompson's] execution – that was unacceptably cruel," he wrote.

Breyer disagreed. "It is the punishment, not the gruesome nature of the crime, which is at issue," he countered.

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