Are decades-long delays between sentencing and execution immune from Eighth Amendment violation because they are self-inflicted by prisoners, or is such prisoner fault for delays simply irrelevant to whether a state-imposed punishment is cruel and unusual? Typically finding delay to be the state’s responsibility, Justices Breyer and Stevens argue that execution following upwards of forty years of death row incarceration is unconstitutional. Nearly every lower court disagrees, reasoning that prisoners have the choice of pursuing appellate and collateral review (with the delay that entails) or crafting the perfect remedy to any delay by submitting, as Justice Thomas has invited complaining prisoners to do, to execution. By choosing the former, any resulting delay is self-inflicted; delayed executions are prisoners’ own fault. Despite this argument’s commonsense appeal, left unexplained is how prisoner fault inoculates state-imposed punishment from Eighth Amendment violation. Lacking a rationale for the prisoner fault argument, this Article proposes the two most obvious candidates: (i) analogizing to fault attribution for delays in the Sixth Amendment speedy trial right context; and (ii) choosing post-conviction review rather than submitting to execution, prisoners waive Eighth Amendment challenge of the resulting delay. But neither is persuasive; moreover, each proposed rationale presupposes the existence of the very right that Justice Thomas and nearly every court vigorously deny: an Eighth Amendment right against excessively delayed execution. The absence of a persuasive rationale exposes prisoner fault as irrelevant and removes the primary obstacle to courts recognizing that execution following decades of death row incarceration constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
June 9, 2015