Death penalty opponents’ silliest argument may be that it is “cruel and unusual punishment” to incarcerate a convicted murderer on Death Row for a long period of time, while he pursues his appeals. Any time a death penalty opponent raises this argument, you can safely write them off as a gasbag.
The latest murderer to raise this argument is Ronald Chambers of Texas. There is no doubt about his guilt, which he acknowledges. According to this Fort Worth Star-Telegram article, Chambers and a confederate attacked two Texas Tech students in Dallas, Mike McMahan and Deia Sutton, who “were shot from behind as they walked hand in hand down an embankment.” Chambers bludgeoned McMahan to death with the butt of a shotgun, hitting him 10 to 20 times, while his confederate tried to strangle Sutton and drown her in the Trinity River.
Despite his acknowledged guilt, Chambers has managed to spend 31 years on Texas’s Death Row, as a result of numerous appeals he has filed over the years. Having managed to stretch it out this long, he now has the chutzpah to argue that it’s been too long:
Attorney Wes Volberding of Tyler recently filed an appeal on Chambers’ behalf with the U.S. Supreme Court. The appeal . . . argues [among other things] that executing the prisoner after he has spent so long on Death Row — the result of litigation errors at his trials — constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.
This is a patently ludicrous argument — one which Judge Michael Luttig once described as a “mockery of our system of justice, and an affront to lawabiding citizens.” Similarly, Justice Clarence Thomas has written:
It is incongruous to arm capital defendants with an arsenal of “constitutional” claims with which they may delay their executions, and simultaneously to complain when executions are inevitably delayed.
And our own Ninth Circuit has rejected such a claim with this language:
A defendant must not be penalized for pursuing his constitutional rights, but he also should not be able to benefit from the ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of those rights. It would indeed be a mockery of justice if the delay incurred during the prosecution of claims that fail on the merits could itself accrue into a substantive claim to the very relief that had been sought and properly denied in the first place. If that were the law, death-row inmates would be able to avoid their sentences simply by delaying proceedings beyond some threshold amount of time, while other death-row inmates — less successful in their attempts to delay — would be forced to face their sentences. Such differential treatment would be far more “arbitrary and unfair” and “cruel and unusual” than the current system of fulfilling sentences when the last in the line of appeals fails on the merits. We thus decline to recognize Richmond’s lengthy incarceration on death row during the pendency of his appeals as substantively and independently violative of the Constitution.
Yes, only a fool could see this as a valid argument. But if you agree with that, then it turns out that we have two fools on the Supreme Court.
Indeed, Justices Breyer and Stevens have been pushing the Supreme Court to hear this ridiculous claim for years now. Both have repeatedly issued dissents from denials of certiorari on this issue. Since there is no solid basis in American jurisprudence to support such a ridiculous claim, they look to — where else? — foreign law. They combine this with hand-wringing statements about how awful it is to await your execution on Death Row. Typical of their logic is this statement from Justice Breyer: “It is difficult to deny the suffering inherent in a prolonged wait for execution — a matter which courts and individual judges have long recognized.”
What does convicted murderer Chambers say to that?
Chambers, unlike others, doesn’t view his execution as a form of freedom from incarceration. “Every day is a blessing,” he said.
That’s a tad off-message, Mr. Chambers! The gravamen of your claim is that every day spent on Death Row is a curse!
But let’s assume that Mr. Chambers simply misspoke, and said “blessing” when he meant “curse.” Let’s assume that every day he spends awaiting execution is agonizing and gut-wrenching. There is an easy solution to that problem: a speedy execution.
Only the innocent, and those who were illegally sentenced to death, can validly complain of the length of their incarceration on Death Row. As to everyone else, the horrors of a long stay on Death Row are easily remedied by executing them without further delay.
Of course, that’s not what they want — which is why they stretch out their ultimately unsuccessful appeals for decades.
It’s bad enough that we allow them to do that. But it’s outrageous that their lawyers would blame the government for it.