Greg Mitchell writes, "Justice Stephen Breyer's Plea to Spare Life of Man Executed in Florida," at Huffington Post. An earlier version appeared at the Nation.
As I've reported here, the state of Florida executed Manuel Valle, 61, two nights ago, using a new formula in its chemical cocktail for a lethal injection. He had been imprisoned for thirty-three years after being convicted of killing a cop in 1978. The US Supreme Court, as expected, had denied a stay.
What I didn't know was that Justice Stephen Breyer had backed a stay, and issued an important, moving, and one hopes, influential dissent that will have a long life. For that reason, I am reprinting it below in its entirety, minus the citations.
The State of Florida seeks to execute Manuel Valle for a crime for which he was initially sentenced to death more than 33 years ago. Valle asks us to consider whether that execution following decades of incarceration on death row violates the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”
I have little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death. In Lackey and in Knight Justice Stevens and I referred to the legal sources, in addition to studies of attempted suicides, that buttress the commonsense conclusion that 33 years in prison under threat of execution is cruel.
So long a confinement followed by execution would also seem unusual. The average period of time that an individual sentenced to death spends on death row is almost 15 years. Thirty-three years is more than twice as long. And, such delays are uncommon.
The commonly accepted justifications for the death penalty are close to nonexistent in a case such as this one. It is difficult to imagine how an execution following so long a period of incarceration could add significantly to that punishment’s deterrent value. It seems yet more unlikely that the execution, coming after what is close to a lifetime of imprisonment, matters in respect to incapacitation. Thus, I would focus upon the “moral sensibility” of a community that finds in the death sentence an appropriate public reaction to a terrible crime. And, I would ask how often that community’s sense of retribution would forcefully insist upon a death that comes only several decades after the crime was committed.
It might be argued that Valle, not the State, is responsible for the long delay. But Valle replies that more than two decades of delay reflect the State’s failure to provide the kind of trial and penalty procedures that the law requires. Regardless, one cannot realistically expect a defendant condemned to death to refrain from fighting for his life by seeking to use whatever procedures the law allows.
It might also be argued that it is not so much the State as it is the numerous procedures that the law demands that produce decades of delay. But this kind of an argument does not automatically justify execution in this case. Rather, the argument may point instead to a more basic difficulty, namely 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.
Because this case may well raise these questions and because I believe the Court should consider them, I vote to grant the application for stay.
It also raised qualms because Valle, by some measures, paid for his crime twice — with what amounted to life in prison and with his death sentence. As the Florida Supreme Court noted, however, Valle's numerous appeals "contributed" to the "delay in his execution."
There will be those who say Valle's execution sends a message to other would-be cop killers. But as a rule the death penalty, when compared to life without parole, has virtually no deterrent effect, studies indicate.
It also costs far more to pursue, diverting resources that could be put toward better crime prevention.
Compared to life-term cases, those in which the death penalty is sought can cost 10 times more.
The extra expense is due to heightened court standards and multiple appeals, aimed at reducing the chance that defendants could be wrongly put to death by the state.
That miscarriage of justice has actually occurred in some cases, despite appellate protections — one more reason to question the wisdom of the death penalty.
Nationally, the incremental expense of pursuing the death penalty runs into the billions of dollars, some experts estimate.
The public bears that cost, both financially and in lost opportunity.
The dollars, if redirected, could fund additional police, probation and corrections officers; more labs to process large backlogs in DNA samples and evidence, accelerating crime solving; more court personnel to reduce overload; and programs to address substance abuse, which too often threatens public safety.
Pena was one of too many officers killed in the line of duty. Let us address this tragedy by investing in crime prevention, not the death penalty.
Tallahassee Democrat Capital Ideas columnist Paul Flemming writes, "Odd alliance someday could end death penalty."
Manuel Valle was pronounced dead at 7:14 p.m. Wednesday, the 70th man executed by the state of Florida in the modern death-penalty era.
In the previous 10 days, Georgia, Texas and Alabama had executed prisoners of their own.
The business of state-sponsored death is alive and well.
The day before, state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda filed legislation to end the death penalty in Florida. She did the same, with predictable near-unanimous opposition, for the session earlier this year.
There's a certain honor in proposing legislation the sponsor is convinced is the right thing to do even if, perhaps especially if, it has no chance. Make no mistake: the chances of Rehwinkel Vasilinda's bill passing approach zero.
The intriguing possibility of a ragtag coalition, bringing together the strangest of bedfellows, raises the possibility of a legitimate debate about the death penalty.
Ask tea-party activists: Is dispensing death the proper role of government? Florida's execution chamber is the ultimate death panel. If you distrust government, why entrust it with the power of life and death?
Ask business-focused fiscal conservatives if execution represents an acceptable return on investment? A long-past study of state costs to run its death-penalty machine pegged the annual cost to Florida at $51 million. Are you getting your money's worth in vengeance or public security?
Ask both if there is any efficiency in the decades of appeals that virtually ensure a 16-year gap between crime and ultimate punishment.
Ask the proponents of law-and-order policy if the executioner's needle can be demonstrated to deter capital crimes?
Promoters of social justice, backers of the Innocence Project, believers in the sanctity of life, and moral opponents are already in the choir loft. Add one, two, three constituent groups and see if you approach a majority.
"You build support year after year after year," Rehwinkle Vasilinda said, acknowledging the long road even the most milquetoast legislation must travel if it's not a legislative priority.
Earlier coverage of issues in Manuel Valle's case begins at the link.
Valle's execution was the first in Florida this year; the 37th execution in the nation this year. It was America's 1,271st post-Furman execution since 1977.