U.S. Supreme Court Justice Says Lengthy Imprisonment Before Execution is Cruel and Unusual Punishment


Manuel Valle spent 33 years on death row in Florida before he was executed on September 28, 2011, at the age of 61. In a dissent from the United States Supreme Court’s decision not to review his case, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, “I have little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death.”

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids punishment that is “cruel and unusual.”

In support of the “commonsense conclusion that 33 years in prison under threat of execution is cruel,” Justice Breyer cited legal sources and studies describing as “‘horrible’ the ‘feelings’ that accompany uncertainty about whether, or when, the execution will take place;” observing the high rate of suicide and mental illness among people condemned on death row; and documenting the “barbaric conditions pervading death rows and the debilitating and lifenegating effects of these conditions.”

Justice Breyer further observed that execution after three decades of imprisonment is also unusual because 33 years is more than twice the average period of time a person spends on death row.

Being imprisoned for multiple decades under threat of execution is a phenomenon unique to the United States: “A growing number of courts outside the United States — courts that accept or assume the lawfulness of the death penalty — have held that lengthy delay in administering a lawful death penalty renders the ultimate execution inhuman, degrading, or unusually cruel.”

The Eighth Amendment analysis requires the Court to evaluate whether a punishment accomplishes penological goals such as deterrence, incapacitation, and retribution. An execution carried out after such a long period of incarceration adds little, if any, deterrent value, Justice Breyer wrote, and “after what is close to a lifetime of imprisonment” also does little to advance incapacitation. He believes the Court should evaluate “how often th[e] community’s sense of retribution would forcefully insist upon a death that comes only several decades after the crime was committed.”

Anticipating arguments that the defendant and his lawyers are to blame for the delay, Justice Breyer wrote that “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.” This case, he concluded, points 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.”