Cruel and Unusual: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment

By Michael Meltsner | Go to book overview
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12
Taking Stock

During the months that Nixon and Mitchell attempted to coax a new ninth Justice out of the Senate, lawyers mobilized against the death penalty were able to postpone every scheduled execution. In 1969, forty-six appeals in death cases were lodged in the Supreme Court; in 1970, thirty- eight more were filed. All were held in abeyance until the decision in Maxwell v. Bishop. Many of these cases involved defendants who had exhausted all other available avenues of legal redress; their high Court appeals bore silent witness that if Maxwell's sentence was affirmed, many executions might take place.

By 1970 the median length of time spent by prisoners on the death rows of American prisons was close to three years.1 Some death-row inmates behaved like tormented animals, but most tried to convince themselves that they would never be executed. "The longer a man is kept on death row," Maryland prison psychologist Stephen Berman observed, "the less the idea of the death penalty bothers him."

The pressures of the long wait for reprieve or death were aggravated by cramped physical conditions, archaic and degrading security precautions, and the emptiness of days without activity. The health of death-row inmates was often

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