WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court refused yesterday to direct states to step up the pace of executions so that inmates do not have to wait on death row for years.
Over two justices' objections, the court turned down the appeals of Florida and Nebraska inmates who argued that it is "cruel and unusual punishment" to execute a prisoner after he has spent years in suspense and fear in the closely confined quarters of death row.
The inmates contended that when the delay is the fault of the state, not the inmate, the Constitution should block execution after postponements that run 20 years or beyond.
Florida inmate Thomas Knight, who also uses the name Askari Abdullah Muhammad, has been on death row for 24 years and six months. Nebraska prisoner Carey Dean Moore has awaited execution for 19 years and four months. Each was sentenced to death for murder.
For years, a majority of the justices have shown deep impatience over the time-consuming delays of execution that result from repeated appeals by inmates. But the court has displayed no interest -- although the issue has been raised several times -- in delays that could be blamed on state inaction.
Although the majority gave no explanation for turning down the latest appeals, Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted in the majority, issued an opinion chastising colleagues who have voted to add to the rights of prisoners facing execution.
"Consistency would seem to demand that those who accept our death penalty jurisprudence as a given also accept the lengthy delay between sentencing and execution as a necessary consequence," Thomas said. He called the series of court rulings on death row inmates' rights "Byzantine."
Although the other justices' votes were not publicly reported, joining Thomas in the majority apparently were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter and Antonin Scalia.
Justice John Paul Stevens, who began arguing four years ago that there was some foundation for the claim that execution was unconstitutional after long delays, filed a brief objection again yesterday.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who dissented, wrote: "The claim that time has rendered the execution inhuman is a particularly strong one. I believe this court should consider that claim now." He noted that some inmates have become insane while awaiting execution. In the Florida and Nebraska cases, he said, the delays had resulted largely from rulings by courts that the states' death penalty procedures were unconstitutional, requiring the states to rewrite their laws and start over with new sentences.
Breyer said that recent statistics have shown that about 125 prisoners on death row in 1997 had been there since 1980 or before.
In Maryland, the longest-serving death row inmate is Eugene S. Colvin-El. He was sentenced in August 1981 for a Baltimore County murder Sept. 9, 1980. After that sentence was vacated, he received a new death sentence in 1992.
The Supreme Court, besides turning down the death row delay issue, agreed to clarify the legal standards that workers must meet to prove in court that they were fired or denied promotions because of age discrimination.
The case involves a 57-year-old man who was fired from his job as an assembly line supervisor in a plumbing products plant in Tupelo, Miss. Roger Reeves was awarded $70,000 in damages, but a federal appeals court overturned the verdict, saying he had not proved that his firing was a result of age bias.