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Supreme Court Won't Hear Case of Man Who Spent 40 Years on Death Row

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on December 13, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear four cases from death row inmates facing execution, resulting in a rare dissent from a denial of certiorari by Justice Breyer. In one case, an inmate had spent 40 years on Florida's death row, awaiting an execution that has yet to come. The Berlin Wall was still standing when the man was sentenced to death, Justice Breyer noted. Saigon had just fallen. Over half of all Americans alive today had yet to be born.

In another denied case, an inmate in Ohio had already evaded execution once -- because the executioner could not find a vein through which to lethally inject him. To try again now, after one botched attempt, would be unconstitutional, he argued.

Relisted Multiple Times, Then Denied

The denials of certiorari are notable not only because of Justice Breyer's dissent, but because the Supreme Court had considered and relisted the death penalty petitions many times before. The petition for Henry Sireci, the Florida inmate, had been considered nine times before being denied, according to SCOTUSblog's Amy Howe. Romell Broom, who Ohio failed to execute in 2008, had his petition relisted four times.

Sireci had been convicted of murder in 1976, largely because of evidence that his hair was at the crime scene. But that sort of hair-matching evidence has since been connected to wrongful convictions that were overturned when DNA testing showed that the match was, in fact, not a match at all. Sireci sought to have his case reopened in order to challenge that evidence.

Broom argued that Ohio, having failed to execute him once, should be barred from trying again. That initial attempt took two hours, as medical teams searched desperately, and painfully, to establish an IV. A second try would be cruel and unusual, he said, and would constitute double jeopardy.

Justice Breyer and the Case Against the Death Penalty

In his dissent to the denial of review, Justice Breyer declared that "the time has come for this Court to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty," echoing his dissent from last term's decision in Glossip v. Gross.

Regarding Sireci, the justice seemed to indicate that the length of an inmate's time on death row, living under the threat of execution, could itself be unconstitutional. Not only was the Berlin Wall up, not only were Millennials yet unborn when Sireci was convicted, 40 years alone would have been longer than the average lifespan when the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments was adopted. Just a span of four weeks awaiting execution, he noted, was described by the Court in 1890 as "one of the most horrible feelings to which [one] can be subjected."

Justice Breyer described Sireci's situation and others as "taking place in what I would consider especially cruel and unusual circumstances," before turning to the details of Broom's case. Broom's argument that a reattempted execution is unconstitutional at least merits the Court's attention, he said.

Justice Breyer wasn't able to convince three of his colleagues to go agree, however.

Two other death penalty cases, both also relisted multiple times, were also denied, though without a dissent.

Not the Only Death Penalty Cases

The denials come just days after the Court deadlocked over a last-minute petition by an Alabama inmate facing the death penalty. With the justices at loggerheads, the inmate's execution was twice stayed before the split Court allowed the state to proceed.

The death penalty isn't off the table for the term, however. The justices have already heard two capital punishment-related arguments this term. One, Buck v. Stephens, involves a man sentenced to death after his own psychologist testified that his race increased the likelihood that he would be dangerous in the future. The other, Moore v. Texas, involves a man with severe intellectual handicaps, whose death sentence was upheld based on outdated medical standards. Decisions in those cases are expected by the term's conclusion this June.

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