Reprieve volunteer

Delay of death row subjects inmates to decades of cruel and unusual punishment

on 07 December 2009

53-year-old Cecil Johnson was executed yesterday after 29 years on Tennessee’s death row. He was 24 years old when he was given a death sentence for three counts of first degree murder at a convenience store.

His trial, back in July, 1981, was fraught with errors and the evidence questionable. Police reports which were uncertain about the killer’s identity were concealed and one of the main witnesses was only able to identify Johnson after seeing his photograph on a news report. A witness who was due to testify for Johnson ‘switched sides’ after being interrogated by the prosecutor, later indicted on bribery charges.

Johnson’s lawyers applied to the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of execution, citing intolerable cruelty of 29 years spent under the threat of the death penalty.

When the UK Privy Council considered the issue in 1993, in the case of Pratt & Morgan v Jamaica, they determined that prisoners who spent five years with the Damoclean sword of the penalty hanging over them were subject to cruel and unusual punishment, and should therefore have their sentences commuted.

The US Supreme Court is supposed to consider evolving standards of decency when deciding if something is cruel and unusual, and therefore forbidden by the Eight Amendment to the Constitution. Justices John Paul Stevens and Steven Breyer recommended a stay for Cecil Johnson, asserting that "The delay itself subjects death row inmates to decades of especially severe, dehumanizing conditions of confinement.” Stevens said that, where the delay is caused by the state, the cruel and unusual punishment it inflicts on inmates is a major cause for concern, something which needs proper attention from the Supreme Court.

Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed vigorously, saying, “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.”

Thomas’ logic appears to deny that systemic error plays a huge part in the long confinements of death row inmates, and rather blames the inmates for utilising the appeal process. He ignores the fact that it is unsatisfactory to continue using a flawed system and blame only those who use it, rather than those who run it.

This is a problem that Reprieve constantly faces when working with clients. Kenny Gay, for example, was convicted 25 years ago and is still waiting for justice on a death row unit in California. This problem is not specific to the USA though, as Naheem Hussain and Rehan Zaman know all too well. They have been imprisoned in Pakistan for five years facing execution, without ever having a trial.

The stay was ultimately denied and Johnson was executed in the early hours of Wednesday morning. The issues raised in Johnson’s appeal are serious concerns affecting the majority of the death penalty population and Reprieve is dissappointed that the Supreme Court keep brushing glaring errors under the carpet and continuing to execute, rather than taking this opportunity to examine the use of capital punishment.

Written by Death Penalty volunteer Laura Maisey

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