Supreme Court Justices Disagree About Lengthy Time on Death Row

Justices John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas disagreed over whether to grant a stay of execution to Cecil Johnson, Jr., who was was convicted of murder in a 1980 shooting at a convenience store in Tennessee. Johnson had been on death row for nearly three decades. Justice Stevens said this lengthy time between his sentencing and execution could amount to cruel and unusual punishment: “[T]he delay itself subjects death row inmates to decades of especially severe, dehumanizing conditions of confinement,” especially when most of the delay was caused by the state. Justice Breyer concurred with Stevens. Both Justices have long urged their colleagues to address the issue of the extensive time inmates spend on death row.

Justice Thomas reacted strongly to Stevens’s assertion, claiming that “as long as our system affords capital defendants the procedural safeguards this court has long endorsed, defendants who avail themselves of these procedures will face the delays Justice Stevens laments.”

The stay was eventually denied, and around 2:34 am on Dec. 2, Johnson became the 1,185th person executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

(B. Mears, “2 justices spar over Tennessee execution,”, December 2, 2009; Johnson v. Bredesen, No. 09-7837 (U.S. Dec. 2, 2009) (Thomas, J., concurring and Stevens & Breyer, JJ., dissenting in the denial of a stay of execution). See also Time on Death Row and U.S. Supreme Court.