The U.S. Supreme Court does not normally reveal the breakdown of votes to grant or deny a stay of execution in capital cases. Though that may protect high court justices from public opprobrium or worse, a protection lower court justices do not enjoy, the practice is wrong.
When the state makes a life-or-death decision in the public’s name, the public should know who voted how and why.
Earlier this month, Justice Stephen Breyer did that. He dissented from the majority decision in Ruiz v. Texas, Rolando Ruiz’s appeal of his death sentence for a murder committed decades earlier.
Breyer went public to prompt the court to consider questions it has ducked for years: How long does the sword have to hang over a convict’s neck without falling before that in itself becomes cruel and unusual punishment? How long may a death row inmate be kept in solitary confinement before that becomes unconstitutional torture?
Ruiz, a gang member who killed a man’s wife in a plot to get insurance money, spent 22 years in solitary confinement. In his dissent, Breyer reminded fellow justices that “this court long ago, speaking of a period of only four weeks of imprisonment prior to execution, said that a prisoner’s uncertainty before execution is ‘one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected.’ ”
Breyer went on to discuss the horrors of long periods of solitary confinement, but a stay was not granted. A few hours later, Ruiz was executed. Now it’s time to bring New Hampshire, the only New England state that still imposes the death penalty, into the picture.”
The House and Senate voted to repeal the death penalty in 2000 but Gov. Jeanne Shaheen’s veto threat killed the effort. Repeal nearly occurred again in 2014 but failed when the Senate tied, 12-12. The votes are probably there for a repeal effort now, but Gov. Chris Sununu supports capital punishment. Because 157 death row inmates have been exonerated, thanks to the effort of the Innocence Project, we ask him to reconsider.
New Hampshire has one person on death row, Michael Addison, who killed Manchester police officer Michael Briggs in 2006. Addison is alone in his cell but he is not, according to prison officials, in solitary confinement. He may join in any activity permitted high-security inmates. But he has now lived under a sentence of death for a decade.
Death penalty supporters say the long delay between a sentence and its imposition, 20 years is not uncommon, is the fault of convicts who avail themselves of every opportunity to postpone execution. Who can blame them, particularly the innocent among them?
Delays are also caused, however, by underfunded judicial systems, prosecutorial error, inadequate or incompetent defense lawyers, inhumane execution techniques and other factors.
Solitary confinement makes the system even less humane.
Breyer quoted from the high court’s 1890 ruling. It cited studies that showed “a considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide, while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”
In 1834, New Hampshire Gov. William Badger, in his effort to repeal the death penalty, quoted the state’s constitution on punishment whose true design is “to reform, not to exterminate mankind,” which is what capital punishment does.
It’s time for New Hampshire to join the other New England states, and most of the civilized world, and abolish the death penalty.