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Supreme Court stays execution of Texas inmate on death row for 30 years

The U.S. Supreme Court. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday stayed the execution of Lester Bower, who has been on death row in Texas for nearly three decades.

Bower’s execution was set for Feb. 10, but the full court granted a stay request until it decides whether to fully consider the case. If the court decides not to hear his case, the stay will be lifted; if the justices do hear his case, the stay will be in place until they issue a ruling.

Bower’s application for a stay request was presented to Justice Antonin Scalia and referred to the full court.

In agreeing to halt Bower’s execution, at least temporarily, the justices raised the possibility that they could consider a second death-penalty case this year. The court said last month it would hear a case from Oklahoma focusing on the drugs used in lethal injections; last week, the justices stayed three upcoming executions in Oklahoma until they rule in that case.

Bower was convicted of shooting and killing four men in an aircraft hangar in 1983. He shot one man in an attempt to steal an ultralight plane the man was trying to sell, and then shot the other three when they arrived unexpectedly, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

His attorneys are arguing, among other things, that executing Bower after more than 30 years on death row “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.” Bower’s execution has been scheduled six times during his time on death row; he has come within hours of entering the death chamber before the reprieves came, his attorneys argue.

Bower, 67, has lived nearly half of his life with a death sentence. He has spent three times as many years on death row in Texas as the average inmate, according to the state’s Department of Criminal Justice.

If his execution takes place as scheduled, Bower will have been the second-longest-serving inmate executed by the state. David Lee Powell, who was executed in 2010, spent 31 years on death row; Joseph Nichols has the second-longest period, spending 25 years on death row before his execution in 2007.

There were more than 3,000 inmates on death row at the end of 2012, and the average inmate had spent about 14 years under a death sentence, according to Justice Department figures released last year. About one in 10 of these inmates on death row were sentenced before 1989.

A federal judge in California last year called that state’s death penalty system unconstitutional and “completely dysfunctional.” U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney wrote in a stern order that the state’s system is so riddled with delays that death sentences are “actually carried out against only a trivial few of those sentenced to death.”

In that case, Carney was writing about an inmate sentenced to death two decades earlier. Carney said that executing the inmate so long after his sentencing violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

California and Texas, along with Florida, are the states with the most inmates on death row.


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