US court rejects appeal by 30-year death row inmate

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WASHINGTON, Oct 15 (Reuters) The US Supreme Court today rejected an appeal by an Arizona prisoner who said his execution would violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment because he has been on death row for more than 30 years.

Over the dissent of one justice, the high court turned down the appeal by Joe Clarence Smith, who contended that standards of decency in the United States make it unconstitutional to execute an individual held on death row for such a long time.

Smith's attorneys said he is one of the longest serving death row inmates in the country, after awaiting execution for almost three times as long as the average death row inmate.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution did not envision imprisoning someone for three decades before they were put to death, they argued.

''Nor would Smith's execution after such an outrageous delay additionally serve the societal interest of retribution and deterrence,'' they said.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard opposed the appeal.

The fact that Smith first received death sentences for two murders some 30 years ago does not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, Goddard said. The delay stemmed from Smith litigating claims related to his case in state and federal courts.

Smith was first sentenced to death in 1977. After successfully appealing and being allowed to present new evidence at another sentencing hearing two years later, he again received the death penalty.

In 1999, a US appeals court overturned Smith's death sentence on the grounds that his lawyer had been ineffective during the second sentencing hearing. The third sentencing proceeding took place in 2004, when Smith got the death penalty.

Justice Stephen Breyer dissented.

''In my view, Smith can reasonably claim that his execution at this late date would be 'unusual,''' Breyer wrote. ''I am unaware of other executions that have taken place after so long a delay, particularly when much of the delay at issue seems due to constitutionally defective sentencing proceedings.'' Breyer also said the issue of whether it is cruel to keep an individual on death row for decades, under threat of imminent execution, raises a serious constitutional question.


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