This month, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a well-watched Florida case, Thompson v. McNeil (08-7369), where William Lee Thompson, sentenced to death in a Florida court back in 1976, requested their consideration of the question: does extended delay of the sentence of death amount to cruel (if not unusual) punishment and therefore violate the 8th Amendment?

Well, the High Court did fail to grant writ (opinion), but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot to consider from the opinion that did spring forth. Let’s ponder the following:

Justice John Paul Stevens’ Statement

First, I’ve read that Justice John Paul Stevens issued a dissent in this case; however, technically it was not a dissent but a statement. And, a statement that conforms to his longstanding position that the the death penalty is wrong. (Stevens already called for an end to the death penalty.)

In it, Stevens wrote, “[o]ur experience during the past three decades has demonstrated that delays in state-sponsored killings are inescapable and that executing defendants after such is unacceptably cruel,” to which Justice Stephen Breyer gave his support in a formal dissent from the denial of certiorari.

Justice Stephen Breyer’s Dissent

In his dissent, Breyer went into the appellate pathways that the Williamson case has taken over the past 30+ years, including such considerations as the fact that Williamson’s spent over half his life on Death Row while the appeals have taken a life all their own, and the reality that Williamson’s accomplice – who might have been more culpable than Williamson in the underlying crime – was not sentenced to death. Interesting point.

Justice Clarence Thomas’ Concurrence

Justice Clarence Thomas, meanwhile, wrote his own concurrence to the Court’s denial of certiorari. In it, Thomas opined “”[i]t is the crime and not the punishment imposed by the jury or the delay in execution that was ‘unacceptably cruel, …” and thereafter provided extensive details on the underlying crime for which Thompson was convicted to support his position. (It is not disputed that the crime for which Thompson was convicted was shocking.)

Why Isn’t This Cruel – If Not Unusual? Oh, and What About the Budget?

States across the country are arguing – and deciding, case in point being New Mexico (see last Monday’s post), that capital punishment is too darn expensive given the state of the economy.

And, here comes a case where the U.S. Supreme Court has the opportunity to address this situation – is it cruel to keep a man, isolated, in a 6 foot by 9 foot cell, for over 30 years after he’s had constitutional guarantees of a speedy trial that apparently aren’t going to grant him anything close to a speedy appellate process?

Wouldn’t providing for a speedy appellate process in death penalty cases not only help prisoners on Death Row, but help society as a whole by streamlining the costs of capital punishment?

This practicality was the jumping-off place for Justice Stevens in his Williamson Statement, where he pointed to his past work in Baze v. Rees, 533 U.S. __ (2008), slip op. at 12, quoting his prior words there, ” … time for a dispassionate, impartial comparison of the enormous costs that death penalty litigation imposes on society with the benefits that it produces has surely arrived.”