WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court turned down a Florida man's plea for leniency Monday because he has been sitting on death row for more than three decades.
The Court's decision clears the way for William Lee Thompson's execution, but also represents the latest battle in an increasingly contentious fight over the death penalty at the high court.
Traditionally, the Court either grants or denies applications for appeals without comment. But in Thompson's case, the Court refused to hear the Florida's man's appeal. And three justices issued statements making clear their positions on capital punishment.
In 1976, Thompson and another man tortured and killed a woman in a motel room in an attempt to steal money. Thompson pleaded guilty twice for his role in the murder, but various legal delays have kept him alive while he sits on Florida's death row.
Justice John Paul Stevens and Justice Stephen Breyer said the delay is likely a violation of Thompson's Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. At the very least they said it merits a full review by the Court. Stevens said the three decade-long delay demonstrates "the fundamental inhumanity and unworkability of the death penalty."
But Justice Clarence Thomas defended the Court's decision, saying Thompson should not benefit from legal delays he himself sought. Thomas says the issue is "whether the death-row inmate's litigation strategy, which delays his execution, provides a justification for the Court to invent a new Eighth Amendment right."
"It does not," Thomas said.
In response to Thomas' argument, Breyer disagreed with his blame of Thompson. Breyer wrote that "the delay here resulted in significant part from constitutionally defective death penalty procedures for which petitioner was not responsible."
In the past, Stevens and Breyer have expressed concerns about Eighth Amendment violations because of their concern over the amount of time it often takes between sentencing and execution. Stevens quoted a Justice Department study saying the average wait is 13 years.
Last year, the Court ruled in in Baze v. Rees that the three chemical method most death penalty states use to execute the condemned is constitutional.
In that case, Stevens determined the legal system could no longer fairly process death penalty cases. His decision provided a stark contrast to the role he played in 1976 when he cast the deciding vote to reinstitute the death penalty. On Monday, Stevens wrote "our experience during the past three decades has demonstrated that delays in state-sponsored killings are inescapable and that executing defendants after such delays is unacceptably cruel."
Thomas argued that Stevens' analysis was flawed in the case of Thompson. The justice defended the "considered judgment" of states—like Florida— who use capital punishment to prosecute defendants who commit the most gruesome of crimes.
"A death sentence, which is expressly contemplated by the Constitution, is warranted in this case," Thomas said. "It is the crime—and not the punishment imposed by the jury or the delay in [Thompson's] execution—that was 'unacceptably cruel.'"