Florida

Florida

TIME ON DEATH ROW: Justice Breyer Points to Constitutional Problems

For some Supreme Court Justices and international courts, the extensive time that many inmates spend on U.S. death rows has raised concerns about cruel and unusual punishment.  In a recent dissent regarding the execution of Manuel Valle in Florida, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that Valle should not be executed because the 33 years he already spent on death row amounted to a violation of the Eighth Amendment.  In an earlier dissent in 1999, Justice Breyer noted that the Constitution did not foresee such delays, “Our Constitution was written at a time when delay between sentencing and execution could be measured in days or weeks, not decades.”  Justice Breyer’s concerns are in line with leading international legal opinion regarding the debilitating isolation common to death row.  Foreign courts have ruled that living for decades while facing execution is a form of psychological torment.  Sarah H. Cleveland, a Columbia law professor and former State Department official, said, “Although concerns about the human impact of excessive time spent on death row have received little attention in this country, the ‘death row phenomenon’ — including lengthy time on death row — has been recognized as inhuman punishment and illegal throughout Europe since the 1980s.”  In a 1993 opinion, the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council wrote, “There is an instinctive revulsion against the prospect of hanging a man after he has been held under sentence of death for many years.” Justice Breyer concluded that a death penalty system that cannot be administered without long delays points to “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.”  While on the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens also expressed concerns about the cruelty of extended time on death row. 

Florida's Death Penalty Marked by Arbitrary Decisions

Mike Thomas, columnist for the Orlando Sentinel in Florida, recently examined the arbitrariness of the state's death penalty system.  "There is no rhyme or reason here," he wrote. "A governor's decision on whose death warrant to sign, as well as a judge's decision on which appeal to accept, are about as arbitrary as a prosecutor's decision to pursue the death penalty.  We spend an estimated $51 million annually on this nonsense, and for our investment we haven't executed anyone going on a year and a half."  Thomas examined recent murder cases in the state, where the death penalty is pursued in one but not the other, concluding that "The odds certainly seem to favor those who can afford top legal talent."  He saw little chance for change in this process: "A new drug that Florida plans to use in its lethal cocktail finally survived all the legal challenges, including one by [death row inmate Manuel] Valle, only to be pulled by the manufacturer. A new drug will mean more challenges.  A federal judge recently ruled that Florida's death-penalty statute is unconstitutional because the condemning jury doesn't have to disclose which aggravating circumstances led to its recommendation.  On and on it goes."

NEW RESOURCES: 2011 DEATH ROW USA Report Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's "Death Row USA" showed a slight increase of 9 inmates in the death row population in the United States between October 1, 2010 and January 1, 2011. However, death row is still significantly smaller now (3,251 inmates) than in 2000 (3,682 inmates). The size of death row also declined overall in 2010.  The size of death row is affected by the number of death sentences and the number of executions. Nationally, the racial composition of those on death row is 44% white, 42% black, and 12% Latino/Latina. Texas, Louisiana, and Connecticut had death rows consisting of 70% minority defendants.  California continues to have the largest death row population (721), followed by Florida (398), Texas (321), Pennsylvania (219), and Alabama (206). California and Pennsylvania have not carried out an executiion in over five years.  The report contains the latest death row population figures, execution statistics, and an overview of recent legal developments related to capital punishment.

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Florida Case Raises Numerous Legal Concerns

Florida has set an execution date of Septmeber 6 for Manuel Valle (pictured), a foreign national from Cuba who was deprived of his rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.  The European Union's ambassador to the U.S. has asked Florida to halt the execution, and Florida's Catholic Bishops have also requested clemency for Valle, saying, "Killing someone because they killed diminishes respect for life and promotes a culture of violence and vengeance."  The state plans to introduce the anesthetic pentobarbital for this execution, despite the fact that the manufacturer of the drug, Lundbeck, Inc., has asked Florida to refrain from such use, saying it "contradicts everything we are in business to do." Valle has been on death row for about 33 years, raising other questions about cruel and unusual punishment in his case.  In another case, a federal judge has found Florida's statute to be unconstitutional.  If that ruling is upheld on appeal, it could affect Valle's case as well, but only if he is still alive. UPDATE: Valle's execution has been stayed at least until Sept. 8 by a federal court to consider whether he was denied a clemency hearing. UPDATE: Stay of execution lifted; may proceed on Sept. 8.

Florida Supreme Court Stays Execution to Allow Lethal Injection Hearing

On July 25, the Florida Supreme Court (4-3) stayed the August 2 execution of Manuel Valle to allow a lower court to consider a challenge to a new lethal injection drug.  Last month, Florida substituted pentobarbital for sodium thiopental as the first drug in its three-drug protocol for executions.  Florida and many other states were forced to seek alternatives to sodium thiopental when the drug's sole U.S. manufacturer decided to stop its production.  Valle's lawyers contend that the use of pentobarbital would subject him to a substantial risk of harm because the drug has never been tested on humans for the purpose of inducing an anesthetic coma.  Federal judges in Ohio and Delaware have also recently stayed executions in those states because of lethal injection challenges, although the stay in Delaware was lifted pending clarification of the basis for the stay.  On separate grounds, a federal judge in Florida found the state's death penalty law unconstitutional because jurors are not given decision-making power to determine whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty.  That case is still under review.

NEW RESOURCES: Judges in Alabama Imposing Death Sentences by Overriding Juries

A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama exposes the practice of state judges imposing death sentences by overriding a jury's recommendation for life.  EJI's study found that judges in the state have overridden jury recommendations 107 times since 1976.  In 92% of the overrides, judges overruled life verdicts to impose a death sentence.  More than 20% of the defendants on Alabama's death row were sentenced through judge overrides.  These sentences contribute to the high per capita death sentencing and execution rates in Alabama compared to the rest of the country.  In Alabama, trial and appellate court judges are elected, often based on "tough on crime" platforms.  The study found that the proportion of death sentences imposed by override often is elevated during election years.  For example, in 2008, 30% of new death sentences were imposed through judge override, compared to only 7% in 1997, a non-election year.  In Johnson v. Alabama--a case involving a judicial override--Justice Thurgood Marshall, wrote in dissent that "it approaches the most literal sense of the word 'arbitrary' to put one to death in the face of a contrary jury determination where it is accepted that the jury had indeed responsibly carried out its task."

NEW RESOURCES: Most Recent DEATH ROW USA Report Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's "Death Row USA" shows that the number of people on death row in the United States is continuing to slowly decline, falling to 3,242 as of October 1, 2010. In 2000, there were 3,682 inmates on death row.  Nationally, the racial composition of those on death row is 44% white, 42% black, and 12% Latino/Latina. California continues to have the largest death row population (714), followed by Florida (394) and Texas (322). Pennsylvania (220) and Alabama (204) complete the list of the states with the five largest death rows in the country.  California and Pennsylvania have not carried out an executiion in over five years.  Death Row USA is published quarterly by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The report contains the latest death row population figures, execution statistics, and an overview of recent legal developments related to capital punishment.

Federal Judge Finds Florida's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

On June 20, U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez declared Florida's death penalty unconstitutional because jurors are not required to make findings beyond a reasonable doubt on the aggravating factors that can increase a guilty defendant's sentence from life to death. The ruling mandates that defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to have all essential elements of proof in criminal cases found by a jury rather than by a judge.  Legal experts say the ruling could have an important impact on other death penalty cases in the state and may lead to stays of execution. In his ruling, Judge Martinez said that Florida's sentencing system violates the U.S. Supreme Court's holding in Ring v. Arizona (2002), which allowed judges to make the final sentencing choice between death and life but requires that jurors first determine whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty. The ruling, which is subject to appeal, came in the case of Paul Evans, who may now get a new sentencing hearing. His murder conviction still stands.

Pages