Death Penalty Tensions Flare Again on Divided US Supreme Court

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The U.S. Supreme Court’s internal divisions over the death penalty were on full display again on Monday in fresh wrangling over how the justices handled recent attempts by two convicted murderers in Alabama and Texas to put off their executions.

In both cases, there are signs that tensions over the death penalty – especially skepticism by the court’s conservative majority over last-minute bids by death row inmates to block executions – are coming to a boil after simmering for years.

In the Alabama case, Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the nine-member court’s five conservatives, wrote a 14-page opinion defending its middle-of-the-night April 12 decision to pave the way for the execution of Christopher Price, 46. The court’s order was released too late for Price’s scheduled execution to be carried out, and he remains on death row.

Minutes later, the court issued a new opinion by conservative Justice Samuel Alito criticizing its March 28 decision to issue a stay of execution for Texas inmate Patrick Murphy after the state had blocked a Buddhist spiritual adviser from accompanying him to the execution chamber.

Thomas, whose opinion was joined by Alito and fellow conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, took aim at liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, a frequent critic of the death penalty. Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion from the Price decision that was joined by the court’s three other liberals.

Price had a weak legal argument, Thomas wrote, meaning “it is difficult to see his litigation strategy as anything other than an attempt to delay his execution. Yet four members of the court would have countenanced his tactics without a shred of legal support.”

Breyer is the most vocal critic of the death penalty on the Supreme Court, questioning the constitutionality of capital punishment and arguing that it is imposed arbitrarily and differently in various parts of the country, often with long delays.

Breyer wrote last month that if prisoners cannot be executed quickly without violating their rights “it may be that … there simply is no constitutional way to implement the death penalty.”

In the April vote, the court reversed two lower court decisions that delayed Price’s execution so he could proceed with his request to be executed by lethal gas instead of lethal injection. The Thomas opinion on Monday was issued as the court rejected Price’s underlying appeal.

Price was convicted and sentenced to death in 1993 in the 1991 killing of William Lynn, a minister, in his home in Bazemore, Alabama.

In the Texas case, Alito said Murphy waited too long to bring his claim and that the court’s action to delay his execution would encourage others to bring similar last-ditch actions. Murphy, a Buddhist, had argued his religious rights under the Constitution were violated by the state.

‘NO GOOD REASON’

“This court receives an application to stay virtually every execution; these applications are almost all filed on or shortly after the scheduled execution date; and in the great majority of cases, no good reason for the late filing is apparent,” Alito wrote.

Alito said Murphy’s religious claim might have merit, but prisoners must file such lawsuits “well before their scheduled executions.”

Texas has already changed its policy, which previously allowed only Christians and Muslims to be accompanied by their religious advisers. Now, no religious advisers are allowed in the execution chamber.

Murphy was serving a 50-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault when he and six other inmates broke out of prison in 2000 and went on a rampage in which a police officer was killed.

A month before the Supreme Court’s Murphy decision, the justices voted 5-4 to allow an execution in Alabama to proceed and denied a request by the condemned inmate, a Muslim, for an imam’s presence in the execution chamber. Alito voted to deny both requests.

Gorsuch also complained about last-minute execution challenges when the court ruled on April 1 against Missouri death row inmate Russell Bucklew, who had sought to die by lethal gas rather than lethal injection because of a rare medical condition. Gorsuch said the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment “does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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Patti Harrison
Member

Why don’t they remember the victims, whose murder was truly cruel and unusual punishment; the child who was beaten to death, the woman who was raped and the murdered horrendously, the innocent father coming home from work being shot to death! No one remembers the victims but the criminal justice system wants you to remember to oh so poor murderer! Let me be very clear, I am truly for the Death Penalty, being a victim of rape and sexual abuse, I would definitely want these scum locked up and given the sentence of death! We all need to remember the… Read more »

John Furlong
Member

They should be killed EXACTLY the way they KILLED, they didn’t search for a humane way to murder, they lashed our and shot, stabbed, beat or ran over their victims and should be treated the same

Ed Palmer
Member

ill tell what ….if any of the death row guys executed were later to be find innocent let all the judges and jury be put to death as well

Mark Schlesinger
Member

And yes, the murderers should suffer at least as much as their victims. Short rope, long tree.

Mark Schlesinger
Member

Breyer is a foe of the. Death penalty for the guilty. He loves the death penalty for the innocent.

Otis
Member

The victims had no spiritual advisor with them, and the poor minister in Alabama WAS a spiritual advisor.

Morte206
Member

Gorsuch got it right, quick does not mean pain free. IMHO the scum should suffer as they made their victim(s) suffer. The asshole, here in NYC, who chained shut then set fire to the car he had just put his 3yo in deserves no less. Hell I’d pay for the privilege of tossing the match.

James
Member

IF there is a problem at SCOTUS for receiving stays of execution ahead of time, establish a time frame in which stays must be submitted to the Court for consideration. Why wait until the last minute – – – unless last minute submissions are another trick the lawyers use to surprise the Court.

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