The Supreme Court yesterday refused to consider whether the execution of prisoners who have spent nearly two decades on death row constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

The justices rejected appeals from inmates in Florida and Nebraska who had been on death row for nearly 25 and 20 years, respectively, and claimed that the long delays violated their Eighth Amendment rights.

In a painstaking dissent heavy on comparisons to foreign law, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote: "A growing number of courts outside the United States--courts that accept or assume the lawfulness of the death penalty--have held that lengthy delay . . . renders ultimate execution inhuman, degrading, or unusually cruel."

There was no statement on behalf of the full court in its denial of the petitions, but Justice Clarence Thomas took the uncommon step of describing his reasoning in writing. "I am unaware of any support in the American constitutional tradition or in this court's precedent that a defendant can avail himself of the panoply of [appeals] and then complain when his execution is delayed," Thomas wrote. He then detailed what he called the Supreme Court's "Byzantine death penalty jurisprudence," which permits several levels of appeals.

In his dissent, Breyer noted that much of the delay in the Florida and Nebraska cases arose from constitutional problems with those states' procedures. In both, the states' methods had been struck down and the inmates underwent new proceedings and again were sentenced to death. In Florida, Askari Muhammad, who had previously been known as Thomas Knight, was convicted of murdering a Miami couple in 1974 and fatally stabbed a prison guard six years later. In Nebraska, Carey Dean Moore is on death row for the 1979 murders of two cab drivers. Breyer cited Department of Justice statistics showing that the two are among 24 inmates who have been on death row for more than 20 years and dozens who have been there nearly as long.

Breyer also observed that high courts in India and Zimbabwe consider protracted delays when deciding whether the death penalty can be carried out. He also said the Privy Council in Jamaica had concluded that it was "inhuman" to force someone to face the agony of execution over a long period of time. And he noted that the European Court of Human Rights had prohibited the United Kingdom from extraditing a potential defendant to Virginia a decade ago partly because death sentence delays were "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment" forbidden by the convention.

The cases rejected yesterday were Moore v. Nebraska and Knight v. Florida.

Separately, the justices agreed to hear a case testing whether a fired worker who claims age bias must present direct evidence of his employer's discriminatory intent. Roger Reeves worked for Sanderson Plumbing Products in Mississippi for 40 years when he was fired at age 57. His successful age discrimination suit was overturned by a federal appeals court, which ruled that a worker must show that the company specifically acted against him because of his age to avoid an automatic judgment for the employer. Other courts have used a lesser standard of proof in allowing a case to get to a jury. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products will be heard early next year.