Killer's Fate May Rest on New Legal Concept
Description: Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia and Academic Director at the Liu Institute, comments on inmates using the death row syndrome in international extradition cases.
Date: 31 January 2005
Author: Avi Salzman
Source: New York Times
Whether Michael Bruce Ross, the Connecticut serial killer whose execution was postponed yesterday, has the right to decide to die could boil down to whether the courts accept a relatively new legal concept called death row syndrome.
In the 17 years since Mr. Ross was first sentenced to death, he has lived in various prison settings, some of them solitary confinement. For almost as many years, lawyers and judges throughout the world have been discussing whether a prolonged stay in such conditions could affect judgment and the will to live - though it has caught on as a legal argument mainly in Europe, said Ellen Kreitzberg, an associate professor at Santa Clara University's School of Law who conducts an annual training program for defense attorneys handling capital cases.
The phrase death row syndrome, or death row phenomenon, was adopted to describe the psychological effects of living on death row. Some psychiatrists and lawyers argue that the conditions on death row and the protracted amount of time spent there can make prisoners delusional, violently insane or suicidal.
Many lawyers familiar with the concept trace it to a 1989 case in the European Court of Human Rights involving a man named Jens Soering, who was accused of murder in Virginia and fled to the United Kingdom. Mr. Soering challenged his extradition on the novel grounds that he should not be subject to the long delays and harsh conditions on Virginia's death row.
The court decided that Mr. Soering could not be extradited to a place that would give him the death penalty because those conditions could be considered "inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Mr. Soering was extradited, but only with the prosecutors' pledge that they would not seek the death penalty.
The Soering case has since been used as precedent in a number of international extradition cases, said Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia, but has been only a subject of discussion in the United States Supreme Court.
No death sentence in the United States has ever been overturned because of death row syndrome, said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington organization that tracks death penalty cases throughout the country.
In Mr. Ross's case, the issue of death row syndrome has been raised to cast doubts on whether he has full competency to volunteer to die.
This is not the first time the syndrome has been invoked in relation to Mr. Ross. Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist and a former professor at Harvard Medical School, raised the issue in affidavits filed by public defenders who were trying to block Mr. Ross's execution. Dr. Grassian says, however, that he does not like the term "death row syndrome," because it abstracts the condition rather than addressing the specific problems of those on death row.
"It clearly does seem to have a lot to do with the conditions that they are confined to," he said. "Many inmates find it so intolerable that they virtually can't stand it anymore."