Supreme Court judge notes ‘cruelty’ of Florida execution

September 29, 2011

A US Supreme Court justice has described the justifications for last night’s execution of Cuban national Manuel Valle in Florida as ‘close to non-existent’, noting the ‘cruelty’ inherent in the prisoner’s three-decade ordeal.Citing the 33 years that Mr Valle had spent awaiting execution, Justice Breyer wrote “I have little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death,” adding that “the commonly accepted justifications for the death penalty are close to non-existent in a case such as this one”.The dissenting judgment was delivered at 6.45pm last night, after Manuel Valle’s execution was delayed for two hours to allow the US Supreme Court more time to consider the case. The majority decision was to deny a stay, and Mr Valle was pronounced dead at 7.14pm local time.Justice Breyer has now became the sole advocate for the Supreme Court setting an outer limit on the time a prisoner can spend on death row before execution. This issue is long since resolved in Commonwealth countries, where the Privy Council has held that after five years facing execution there is a presumption that the death penalty is unacceptably cruel. No US court has yet reached a similar conclusion (though many have rejected it) and thus the last several people executed in Florida had all waited on death row for more than 23 years. Mr Valle, who has strong family ties to Spain, also endured a raft of other failures by Floirida, ranging from denial of a clemency process to a lack of consular notification on his arrest to his ultimate execution with an experimental new drug.Significantly, Justice Breyer cited the difficulty with death penalty “as currently administered” to both avoid cruelty and also “to assure that the wrong person is not executed” – suggesting, as many did following the Troy Davis case, that the system is inherently dysfunctional. Reprieve’s Director, Clive Stafford Smith said: “The US death penalty is in an awful mess, because even spending a long time on appeals does not equate with reliability. Too many gross mistakes are made even with many years spent on so-called safeguards, and speeding things up will only make matters worse in that sense. Yet there is no doubt that delay such as that suffered by Manuel Valle is agony. The serious flaws in the death penalty system are in urgent need of attention and Justice Breyer’s concerns should serve as a wake-up call for the US Supreme Court.” ENDS Notes to editors1. For further information, please contact Donald Campbell or Katherine O’Shea in Reprieve’s press office: +44 (0) 207 427 1082 / +44 (0) 7791 755 4152. Justice Breyer’s dissenting judgement is here. 3. Further information about Manuel Valle can be found on  Reprieve’s website. A summary of the key failings by the State of Florida in the case against him can be found here. On the subject of signing death warrants, Governor Scott has said: “It’s not what I ran on, and I only learned about it during the race.” St Petersburg Times, 16-07-20114. The relevant text from the petition to the US Supreme Court concerning the Florida Governor’s discretion to sign death warrants is available online.  5. On Tuesday, Florida’s Supreme Court refused to consider claims by a leading neurologist that the state’s new execution procedure, trialled last night on Cuban Manuel Valle, is unlawful. Dr David Nicholl, who uses drugs produced by pharmaceutical firm Lundbeck in his work, had submitted an Emergency Writ of Quo Warranto to Florida’s Supreme Court seeking to stop the state’s execution of Manuel Valle, due to be carried out at 4pm today (EST). The petition had sought to stop Florida’s Department for Corrections from using Lundbeck’s pentobarbital as part of its lethal injection procedure, noting that the drug has not been tested, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved it, the Controlled Substances Act bans it for non-medical use and the drug’s manufacturer, Lundbeck, opposes its use in executions. 6. Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives.  Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.  Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 15 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, assisting over 70 prisoners facing the death penalty around the world, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’ Reprieve’s EC Project identifies and assists prisoners with European connections who are facing the death penalty in the USA. Reprieve’s Stop Lethal Injection Investigation seeks to stop the use of medical technology in executions.