« "Do Public Defenders Spend Less Time on Black Clients?" | Main | Former New York Assembly speaker gets lengthy (way-below guideline) federal sentence for corruption »

May 3, 2016

Some Dostoevsky-inspired insights on the death penalty delay canard

It is sometimes hard to find an academic eager to lambast death penalty abolitionists for even their weaker arguments, so I was somewhat surprised to see this new commentary by Noah Feldman titled "Delaying Execution Isn't Cruel and Unusual." Here are excerpts:

Following a view he has held since the 1990s, [Justice] Breyer argued that the death penalty is unconstitutional because it takes too long for condemned inmates to be put to death.  The claim that death delayed is worse than death itself is a particularly shocking one because it's the converse of arguing that taking a human life before its natural endpoint is fundamentally immoral.  Instead, the view asserts that death must be administered quickly after sentencing to avoid the convicted person living on many years in prison -- even if that person wants to live as long as possible.

Make no mistake: in every case where an inmate has been on death row for many years, it’s by choice. In the case considered Monday, the defendant had been on death row for 32 years.  That’s the result of numerous appeals by his lawyers, and numerous delays in hearing those appeals by state and federal courts.  A defendant who wants to die can skip the appeals, like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who waived his appeals and was executed expeditiously.

The judges who hear capital appeals understand all this perfectly well.  They could put death penalty cases on the top of the docket.  But they don’t, at least in part because they know that every day of delay is another day of life for the defendant.  It’s one of the persistent facts about the death penalty that almost every person who is sentenced to die chooses to fight the sentence.

In theory, it's easy to say you’d rather be executed than spend your life in prison.  That sentiment is a stock line in television and film.  And I confess that I share it – or at least I think I do.  But no matter how powerful the thought, the empirical evidence suggests that, when push comes to shove, the human instinct to live another day is overwhelming. That’s why so-called “volunteers” such as McVeigh are vanishingly rare in our legal system....

So in what sense could it be cruel and unusual not to execute someone over a long period of time while his appeals are pending?  The answer has to be that the long-term prospect of death is itself a kind of torture, worse than the experience of contemplating your own execution in the immediate future.

That insight seems to follow from our imagined scene of the prisoner in his cell awaiting execution, like a character out of Dostoevsky.  The trauma and psychological pain of contemplating one’s imminent mortality seem bad enough. Imagine if that same trauma and pain were repeated for 32 years. In these terms, the delay could be seen as an unconscionable form of quasi-permanent torture.

But the reality must surely be otherwise.  A prisoner on death row doesn’t actually expect to be executed every day that he is there. Yes, courts often set execution dates.  But they do so in the full knowledge that those dates will probably be deferred.

From the perspective of the prisoner, the mere setting of the date is no doubt terribly upsetting.  But over time, even the most sensitive prisoner would surely get used to the repetitive structure of sentencing date followed by delay.  To cite Dostoevsky again, if imprecisely: “Man can get used to anything -- the brute!”

It emerges, I think, that the so-called Lackey claim to which Breyer is still devoted is psychologically unconvincing.  To live every day in the knowledge that eventually one will die is in fact the universal human condition.  Many of us will die in the next 32 years.  And none of us knows exactly on what day that will occur.

Those who oppose the death penalty on moral grounds have plenty of strong arguments on their side.  They don’t need this one, which in fact undercuts their claims about the inherent value of every day of human life.  The remedy for death delayed, after all, can only be death itself.

Prior recent related post:

May 3, 2016 at 03:37 PM | Permalink


Breyer is a doofus--who would have known?

Posted by: federalist | May 3, 2016 7:01:35 PM

"The claim that death delayed is worse than death itself is a particularly shocking one because it's the converse of arguing that taking a human life before its natural endpoint is fundamentally immoral."

Breyer: California’s costly “administration of the death penalty” likely embodies “three fundamental defects” about which I have previously written: “(1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, and (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose.”

It's not shocking at all to argue that the system in place at some point results in the state losing the power to execute if the improper procedures in place -- a result of its own actions by the willing decisions of elected officials etc. -- requires decades to carry out the sentence. It isn't the obligation of the defendant to help out the state by waiving his rights here. The idea that the prisoner in effect should help the state load the gun used to killed him or whatever is on some level asinine.

Academics can be found for most things.

Posted by: Joe | May 3, 2016 8:30:32 PM

Prof. Dorf on Breyer's dissent: https://verdict.justia.com/2016/05/04/are-long-death-penalty-delays-unconstitutional

Posted by: Joe | May 4, 2016 10:39:35 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB