Clive Stafford Smith

Manuel Valle's excruciating 33-year execution

on 29 September 2011

So the State of Florida executed Manuel Valle.  At Reprieve, for the past few weeks we have been trying to help his Florida lawyers, albeit from far away. In the end, last night I went out to dinner, a surreal one as the time was ticking down on the Reprieve execution clock – but by then there was nothing else we could do, and it would have been rude to cancel. When I got home, I stayed up until Florida killed him, at fourteen minutes past midnight UK time. I felt an obligation, and I could not have slept anyway.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Breyer voted for a stay and took the time to write about his qualms. Manuel had been on death row for 33 years. “I have little doubt,” Breyer wrote, “about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death.” 

He was obviously correct.  I first visited the Florida State Prison at Starke in 1985 – Manuel had already been in residence for several years.  They used to test the electric chair regularly, to make sure Ol’ Sparky (as they cheerfully called it) was in working order. All the lights would dim in the visiting room and along death row. That was torture enough for the condemned men.

Then there were sixty-nine times during Manuel’s tenure when the execution chamber was used for real, from John Spenkellink in 1979 to Martin Grossman last year. He would watch a man leave the Row for the last time, going to the Death Watch Cell.  Some were men he had known for decades.  Willie Darden had suffered through seven warrants, walking that walk seven times, before they finally got him in 1988.

Before last midnight, Amos King held the record.  I knew him.  He had waited 25 years six months when he died. Valle shattered that mark. But delay has only increased in Florida. Thirty-three prisoners remain who have spent longer than Amos waiting to die.

Various people deem themselves qualified to decide that Manuel was properly killed. No doubt they will howl that he should have been executed long ago. They will blame Manuel and his lawyers for the delay.  But Justice Breyer has already replied to them. “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.”

Justice delayed is, indeed, justice denied – for the prisoner as it is for the victim.  Yet the fault lies in the system itself. Even when we delay for decades, we still make endless mistakes – whether when the prisoner is innocent, he is mentally disabled, or he only ended up on death row because of the ineptitude of his lawyer. In truth, the courts have long since forgotten about truth and justice, and are now entangled in a web of pointless procedure that torments everyone involved but fails to deliver justice to anyone.

Various jurisdictions have long since sided with Justice Breyer, leaving the United States in an unimpressive isolation.  In the Caribbean, if the execution is not carried out within five years, it must be annulled. When I was in Pakistan last year, I was pleased to learn that the Sharia court had applied the same principle: it was, the much-maligned Sharia judges explained, a violation of the principle of double jeopardy to mistreat a prisoner for several years in prison, and then think to punish him again with the noose.

If we do no more than speed up the current system, we will deliver catastrophe at a faster rate. If we are not willing to provide a death row prisoner with the kind of high-powered defence that Rupert Murdoch receives when his staff hack into Hugh Grant’s telephone, we should not even contemplate the business of killing people. But meaningful solutions are unpalatable to a tax-averse Tea Party, so we will doubtless continue to hobble along the road to injustice.  

This article originally appeared on The Guardian's website on 29 September 2011

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