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A Death Before Dying - Solitary Confinement on Death Row, ACLU, 2013

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A Death Before Dying | 1

A Death Before Dying: Solitary Confinement on Death Row
July 2013

A Death Before Dying | 2


INTRODUCTION ................................................................................................................................ 4
TRAPPED IN A BROKEN SYSTEM ...................................................................................................... 4
PUNISHMENT ON TOP OF PUNISHMENT .......................................................................................... 5
Cramped and Bare Cells Are the Norm........................................................................................................................ 6
Most on Death Row Experience Extreme Isolation and Inactivity ............................................................................ 7
Too Many on Death Row Are Denied Religious Services ........................................................................................... 7

CONCLUSION ................................................................................................................................. 11

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Most death row prisoners in the United States are locked alone
in small cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact
or interaction; reduced or no natural light; and severe
constraints on visitation, including the inability to ever touch
friends or loved ones.
This stark reality endures at a time when the United States’
experiment with the death penalty is at a crossroads. On one
hand, in 2013, another state repealed the death penalty ‟
Maryland. That makes six states in the last six years ‟ Maryland,
Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey, and New York ‟ Texas death row cell, where prisoners
that have repealed the death penalty, bringing the number of have spent an average of nearly 11
states without it to 18. Today, more than half of the states have years before execution.
either eliminated the death penalty completely or have not Photo Credit: Texas Department of Corrections
executed anyone for at least 10 years. Thirty states, plus federal
and military jurisdictions, have not executed anyone in at least 5 years. This steady march toward
repeal seems to indicate that it is only a matter of time before the Supreme Court will declare the
death penalty cruel and unusual punishment and bar its use nationwide.
But until that time, many states will continue efforts to execute, often after death-sentenced
prisoners have languished in solitary confinement on death row for years and even decades. Death
row prisoners are subjected to these harsh conditions not because of their conduct in prison or any
demonstrated dangerousness to staff or other prisoners. They are subjected to extreme isolation
due to their sentences alone.

While many in the United States understand that part of the horror of the death penalty is living day
in and day out with the threat of execution, most are unaware that the vast majority of death row
prisoners also suffer under conditions of extreme isolation that compromise their physical and
mental health and needlessly inflict pain and suffering. Indeed, researchers have found that the
clinical effects of extreme isolation can actually be similar to those of physical torture.
For this reason, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading
Treatment or Punishment found that solitary confinement conditions can amount to “inhuman and
degrading treatment”2 and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has called for a global
ban on solitary confinement in excess of 15 days.3
Death row prisoners spend years and years on death row for a number of reasons. The length of
time is often needed for lawful appeals, but these processes are too often extended by serious
breakdowns in our legal system; inadequate counsel for the poor; prosecutors’ suppression of
evidence favorable to defendants; ill-advised and illegal execution protocols; and the appeals, legal
challenges, and stresses on judicial resources related to these problems. All of these factors
contribute to the time spent on death row.
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The injustice of the death penalty system and its lack of fairness have been proven again and again
as shown by the dozens of individuals ‟ 142 as of July 2013 ‟ found innocent after years on death
row. Scores of other defendants have been found to be illegally sentenced to death and have had
their sentences, and often even their convictions, reversed by the courts. For example, in
Pennsylvania, where 202 prisoners are currently imprisoned on death row, a recent study
documented 142 cases in which a jury handed down a murder conviction and death sentence but
where an appellate court, finding serious legal error, later threw out the murder conviction, the
death sentence, or both.4
“I saw guys who dropped their appeals because of the intolerable conditions. Before his execution,
one inmate told me he would rather die than continue existing under these inhumane conditions. I
saw guys come to prison sane, and leave this world insane, talking nonsense on the execution
gurney. One guy suffered some of his last days smearing feces, lying naked in the recreation yard,
and urinating on himself.”
-Anthony Graves, who spent years on Texas’ death row in solitary confinement for a crime he did not

While death row prisoners fight for their lives in these failed and failing systems, they spend years
and years subjected to the devastating effects of solitary confinement. Ultimately, some will
“volunteer” to die rather than continue to live under such conditions. Many will be broken beyond
repair ‟ their minds gone before the state ever executes them. All will suffer needlessly.
As policy leaders, lawyers, judges, advocates and the
public struggle with how to “fix” or end the death
penalty, they must also recognize that the current
system inflicts a double punishment on deathsentenced prisoners which is neither required by law
nor in any way mandated by the sentence imposed by
the judge or jury. This punishment is years and years
spent in agonizing solitary confinement while pursuing
lawful appeals.
Regardless of their stance on the death penalty, the
people of the United States understand that a fair A solitary confinement cell on Texas’ death row.
Photo Credit: Texas Department of Corrections
justice system must be a humane justice system. And
by this measure, we are currently failing. It is time for
reformers on both sides of the death penalty debate to recognize the hidden harms of solitary
confinement inflicted on death row prisoners across the country. Solitary confinement is not part of
the sentence. In order to build a criminal justice system that accurately reflects our values, we must
end the routine use of solitary confinement of death row prisoners.

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This briefing paper offers a first critical overview of solitary confinement on death row. It explores
the results of an ACLU survey of death row conditions nationwide and the legal and human
implications of the death row prisoners locked in solitary confinement for years and even decades.
The data that follow are the result of a survey completed by advocates for death row prisoners and
others knowledgeable about death row conditions. Adequate and reliable responses were received
from 26 states.5

Nationally, more than 3,000 prisoners are confined on death rows in 35 states (including two that
have repealed the death penalty, but so far have allowed pre-existing death sentences to stand).
According to the American Bar Association’s Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners, death row
prisoners, while permissibly separated from other prisoners, should be housed in conditions
comparable to those in general population. Administrative segregation or solitary confinement
should only be used for brief periods for reasons related to discipline, security, or crime.6 Despite
this clear best practice standard, the overwhelming majority of death-penalty states house death
row prisoners in solitary confinement. Our survey revealed that the vast majority of these states
confine death row prisoners in segregation or solitary-type conditions based solely on their death
sentences. Contrary to the American Bar Association standards, most death row prisoners cannot
be moved to less restrictive conditions based on good conduct. Simply put, they are condemned to
solitary for life, a kind of death before dying.

Cramped and Bare Cells Are the Norm
Death row prisoners are housed alone in tiny cells, ranging from just 36 square feet to little more
than 100 square feet. Most are the size of an average bathroom. Most cells generally contain a steel
bed or concrete slab, steel toilet, and small writing table. The majority of death row prisoners eat
alone in their cells, fed on trays inserted through a slot in the door. They also receive the majority of
their medical and mental health care through these slots. Face-to-face contact with another human
being is rare.
“Folks can disagree about the death penalty, but can anyone disagree that the warden is responsible
for the prisoner’s welfare until his execution? Many guys are released from death row because they
are proven innocent ‟ shouldn’t a prisoner be allowed to prove his innocence while he awaits
execution? Shouldn’t he be allowed to prove his death sentence was wrongly handed
down? Shouldn’t he be allowed to try to get right with God, or to make apologies to his
victims? Shouldn’t he be allowed to spend time with his family before he goes? Solitary is crazy
making. And it makes it impossible for the prisoner to do what society thinks he should be able to
do before he is sent to his maker. He’s still a person while he’s here on earth; his punishment is
supposed to be death, not day-by-day torture leading up to his execution.”
-Steve Earle, singer, song-writer, and social activist
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Most on Death Row Experience Extreme Isolation and Inactivity
Always sleeping alone locked in a tiny cell is one thing. But more damage is caused when prisoners
are locked in these bathroom-sized cells for hours on end for months, years, and even decades ‟
when their whole life exists in the cell. The survey revealed that 93
percent of states lock up their death row prisoners for 22 or more
hours per day. Most of these prisoners live under conditions of
Death Rows across
extreme social isolation and enforced idleness.

the U.S. make their
beds from:
 Steel: 60%
 Concrete: 13%
 Steel with mattress: 9%
 Concrete with pad: 6%
 Metal: 6%
Cement with mattress: 3%

For many death row prisoners, human contact is generally
restricted to brief interactions with corrections officers and, for
some prisoners, occasional encounters with healthcare providers
or attorneys. An overwhelming majority of states do not allow
death row prisoners to have access to work or employment
opportunities, or provide access to educational or vocational
programming of any kind.

The social isolation and forced idleness experienced by most on
death row are exacerbated by extreme limits on visitation with
loved ones. Most death row prisoners will never be able to touch or hug family members or loved
ones, as 67 percent of states mandate no-contact visitation for death row prisoners. This means that
all human interactions during family visits
occur while the prisoner is behind some sort
Average size of death row
of barrier. Frequently, prisoners will also be
cells (in feet)
in arm and leg restraints during visits.


Enforced idleness for most death row
prisoners also takes the form of an extreme
lack of the exercise and movement human
beings need to maintain physical and mental
health. In fact, 81 percent of states allow
only one hour or less of exercise daily for
death row prisoners. And nearly half provide
only a cage, pen, or cell in which to exercise.
Access to exercise equipment, or even a
simple ball to bounce up and down, is
extremely rare on death row. Many prisoners will go years without access to fresh air or sunshine.

Too Many on Death Row Are Denied Religious Services
While prisoners’ rights are limited in many ways, the right to free exercise of religion is protected
under the First Amendment as well as two federal statutes providing heightened protection for
religious exercise in prison: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which applies to federal
and District of Columbia prisoners, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
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(RLUIPA), which applies to state and local institutions that receive money
from the federal government (i.e., most local jails and every single state
prison system).
Despite the fact that Congress and the courts have recognized the
importance of religious freedom in prison, death row prisoners are
afforded little to no access to religious services. Indeed, 62 percent of
states offer no religious services to death row prisoners and access to
chaplains or other religious advisors is sporadic at best. This denial of
such an important right enshrined in our Constitution and federal laws
for condemned men and women raises troubling questions about capital
punishment regimes nationwide. It is also likely to exacerbate the
devastating effects of solitary confinement to which so many death row
prisoners are subjected.

A solitary confinement
cell on Texas’ death row.

Photo Credit: Texas Department
of Corrections

“As a former warden at San Quentin and life-long corrections professional, I know that safety for
staff, prisoners, and the public is the utmost concern. But I also know we can do this in a humane
way. Death rows should be designed to allow prisoners to leave their cells, participate in programs,
and spend time on the yard without coming into physical contact with staff, but where they can be
observed by staff visually, such as through screen or glass. Where prisoners are well-behaved, 23/1
solitary is ridiculous. Conditions of confinement should be responsive to behavior ‟ prisoners should
be able to earn their way into the least restrictive conditions consistent with meeting safety
concerns. Privileges and incentives, like educational programs, contact visits, and phone calls,
should be used to achieve the best security. The damage done to people through solitary
confinement on death row is unnecessary and avoidable; fixing this problem is consistent with my
number one concern, which is our overall public safety.”
-Jeanne Woodford, former warden, San Quentin State Prison, California

Empirical research consistently demonstrates that prisoners subjected to isolation suffer many of
the same symptoms caused by physical torture.7
Research shows that people subjected to solitary confinement exhibit a variety of negative
physiological and psychological reactions, including:

Hypersensitivity to external stimuli;8
Perceptual distortions and hallucinations;9
Increased anxiety and nervousness;10
Fears of persecution;11
A Death Before Dying | 8


Lack of impulse control;12
Severe and chronic depression;13
Appetite loss and weight loss;14
Heart palpitations;15
Blunting of affect and apathy;17
Talking to oneself;18
Problems sleeping;20
Confused thought processes;21
Self-mutilation;24 and
Lower levels of brain function, including a decline in EEG activity after only seven days
in solitary confinement.25

As one prison psychiatrist has noted, “It’s a standard psychiatric concept, if you put people in
isolation, they will go insane. ... Most people in isolation will fall apart.”26
In addition to increased psychiatric symptoms generally, suicide rates and incidents of self-harm
are much higher for prisoners in solitary confinement.27 It is not unusual for prisoners in solitary to
compulsively cut their flesh, repeatedly smash their heads against walls, swallow razors and other
harmful objects, or attempt to hang themselves.28 Although national data are not available for
suicide rates of death row prisoners in solitary confinement, we know that approximately 50 percent
of all prisoner suicides take place in isolation cells.29 In California, for example, although less than
10 percent of the state’s prison population was held in isolation units in 2004, those units accounted
for 73 percent of all suicides.30 The psychologically-shattering effects of solitary confinement on
those with mental illness are so well documented that every federal court to consider the question
of whether placing the severely mentally ill in such conditions is cruel and unusual punishment has
found a constitutional violation.31 The leading psychiatrists’ professional organization in the United
States, the American Psychiatric Association, recently issued a formal position statement that
prisoners with serious mental illness should almost never be subjected to such treatment and in the
rare event that isolation is necessary, they must be given extra clinical supports.32
Despite the legal and medical consensus on the harms produced by solitary confinement for
persons with mental illness, no exceptions are generally made for the many men and women with
serious mental illness confined in solitary on death rows around the country. The countertherapeutic conditions imposed on seriously mentally ill death row prisoners are further
exacerbated by the fact that access to mental health treatment is often perfunctory, irregular, and
typically occurs “cell-side” through the bars or mesh of the prisoner’s cell door.

A Death Before Dying | 9

Facing isolated conditions, helplessness, despair, and the anxiety and anguish of waiting to die for
years on end, many death row prisoners take control in the only way they know: they drop their legal
appeals and “volunteer” for execution.
To date, more than 10 percent of the 1,323 executions since 1976 were of those who dropped their
appeals and sought execution. Death-row suicides are also common. Texas has seen 10, including
six since 2004.
The prospect of executing the third “volunteer” in Oregon was a specific reason for Governor
Kitzhaber to announce an execution moratorium. As he observed, only those who “volunteer” are
executed, making a mockery of the idea that justice is “swift and certain.”

Michael Selsor spent over 36 years on Oklahoma’s death row prior to his execution in 2012. Manuel
Valle spent 33 years on Florida’s death row before his 2011 execution. According to the Bureau of
Justice Statistics, the average time spent on death row by prisoners executed in 2010 was 14.8
years.33 From 2000 to present, the average time from sentence to execution in Texas, one of the
country’s most active death rows, has been nearly 11 years. 34 Several states have death row
prisoners who have served more than three decades on death row; two decades on the row is not
Death row prisoners spend long periods of time on death row while pursuing their legal appeals,
which is a time-consuming process. For all death row prisoners, these years in solitary confinement
take their toll on the mind, on the ability to pursue appeals, and on the will to live. The impact of
solitary confinement adds to questions already raised at the local, state, and national level over the
fairness of the death penalty in both its conception and its implementation.

The devastating impact of solitary confinement on death row is not suffered only by the guilty or
those correctly sentenced to death. Nationally, 142 death row prisoners have been freed from death
rows after they were proven innocent ‟ that’s more than one innocent person released for every 10
executions since 1976.35 The average time between conviction and exoneration was nearly 10
years.36 Until they win relief, all innocent prisoners are subjected to the same inhumane conditions
as their guilty counterparts.
The Supreme Court has never addressed whether prolonged confinement on death row before
execution violates the Eighth Amendment. Some members of the court, however, have engaged in a
discussion on the issue in opinions attached to the court’s brief orders declining to decide this issue.
Justices Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens have written opinions addressing this issue. The
international community has been uniform in finding that it is “an inhuman act to keep a man facing
A Death Before Dying | 10

the agony of execution over a long extended period of time.” 37 Courts in Canada, India, Zimbabwe,
the Bahamas, Uganda, and Guyana have adopted this principle.38 So too have human rights courts.
Most famously, the European Court of Human Rights, in Soering v. United Kingdom, specifically
recognized “death row phenomenon” and found that the United Kingdom could not extradite a
potential capital defendant to Virginia because the delay between his sentence and execution (there,
estimated to be a relatively brief 6- to 8-year period) would amount to “cruel, inhuman, [or]
degrading treatment or punishment” forbidden by the European Convention on Human Rights.39 The
Inter-American Court of Human Rights has held likewise.40
Answering the argument that the delay between sentence and execution is caused by the
condemned person’s appeals, the court in Soering noted that “just as some lapse of time between
sentence and execution is inevitable if appeal safeguards are to be provided to the condemned
person, so it is equally part of human nature that the person will cling to life by exploiting those
safeguards to the full. However well-intentioned and even potentially beneficial is the provision of
the complex of post-sentence procedures in Virginia, the consequence is that the condemned
prisoner has to endure for many years the conditions on death row and the anguish and mounting
tension of living in the ever-present shadow of death.”41
On this issue, Justice Stevens was blunter, stating that “[j]udicial process takes time, but the error
rate in capital cases illustrates its necessity. We are duty bound to insure that every safeguard is
observed when a defendant’s life is at stake.” 42
Building on the opinion he penned in 1995 in Lackey v. Texas, involving a man imprisoned for 17
years before execution, now retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in 2009 of a
Florida man who had spent 32 years on death row before his execution:
“As he awaits execution, petitioner has endured especially cruel conditions of confinement,
spending up to 23 hours per day in isolation in a 6- by 9-foot cell. Two death warrants have been
signed against him and stayed only shortly before he was scheduled to be put to death. The
dehumanizing effects of such treatment are undeniable. Moreover, as I explained in Lackey,
delaying an execution does not further public purposes of retribution and deterrence but only
diminishes whatever possible benefit society might receive from petitioner's death. It would
therefore be appropriate to conclude that a punishment of death after significant delay is “so totally
without penological justification that it results in the gratuitous infliction of suffering.”

While the courts determine whether states are entitled to execute our fellow human beings, some
prisoners will endure conditions of solitary confinement for years and decades on end, followed, for
some, by a long-delayed execution. Especially as we move toward becoming a country without
capital punishment, this human rights violation requires immediate attention.

A Death Before Dying | 11

Hernán Reyes, The Worst Scars Are In The Mind: Psychological Torture , 89 INT. REV. OF THE RED CROSS 591 (2007); Metin
Basoglu, et al., Torture vs. Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment: Is the Distinction Real or Apparent? , 64

REPORT OF THE CPT 76 (2011), available at

Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Interim Report of
the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment , ¶ 77, U.N. Doc.
A/66/268 (Aug. 5, 2011) (by Juan Mendez) available at

R. Dunham, THE FIRST 100 RE-SENTENCINGS: SUBSEQUENT DISPOSITIONS OF PENNSYLVANIA CAPITAL CASES REVERSED IN POSTCONVICTION, Villanova Law School, Jan. 28, 2013, available at (as visited on April 30, 2013).

Surveys were completed by capital defense attorneys who regularly visit prisoners on death rows and, in some limited
cases, other persons with direct knowledge of death row conditions.

ABA Crim. Just. Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners, Standard 23-2.6.(a) (2010), available at


Reyes, supra note 1; Basoglu, supra note 1.


Stuart Grassian, Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement, 140 AM. J. PSYCHIATRY 1450, 1452 (1983).

Id.; Craig Haney, Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ''Supermax'' Confinement, 49 CRIME & DELINQUENCY
124, 130, 134 (2003); see generally R. Korn, The Effects of Confinement in the High Security Unit at Lexington, 15 SOC.

JUST. 8 (1988).
Grassian, supra note 8, at 1452-53; Haney, supra note 9, at 130, 133; Holly A. Miller, Reexamining Psychological
Distress in the Current Conditions of Segregation, 1 J. CORRECTIONAL HEALTH CARE 39, 48 (1994); see generally S.L.
Brodsky & F.R. Scogin, Inmates in Protective Custody: First Data on Emotional Effects, 1 FORENSIC REP. 267 (1988).


Grassian, supra note 8, at 1453.


Id.; Holly A. Miller & G. Young, Prison Segregation: Administrative Detention Remedy or Mental Health Problem? , 7


Grassian, supra note 8, at 1453; Miller & Young, supra note 12, at 92; Haney, supra note 9, at 131.


Haney, supra note 9, at 130; see generally Korn, supra note 9.


Haney, supra note 9, at 131.


Miller & Young, supra note 12, at 91; see generally Korn, supra note 9.




Haney, supra note 9, at 134; see generally Brodsky & Scogin, supra note 10.


Haney, supra note 9, at 133.

A Death Before Dying | 12




Haney, supra note 9, at 137; see generally Brodsky & Scogin, supra note 10.


Haney, supra note 9, at 133.



Grassian, supra note 8, at 1453; Eric Lanes, The Association of Administrative Segregation Placement and Other Risk
Factors with the Self-Injury-Free Time of Male Prisoners, 48 J. OFFENDER REHABILITATION 529, 539-40 (2009).

Paul Gendreau, N.L. Freedman, & G.J.S. Wilde, Changes in EEG Alpha Frequency and Evoked Response Latency
During Solitary Confinement, 79 J. ABNORMAL PSYCH. 54, 57-58 (1972).


Human Rights Watch, Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness 149 n. 513 (2003).

Expert Report of Professor Craig Haney at 45-46, n. 119, Coleman v. Schwarzenegger/ Plata v. Schwarzenegger, No:
Civ S 90-0520 LKK-JFM P, C01-1351 THE (E.D. Cal/N.D. Cal. Aug. 15, 2008).

See generally J. Metzner & J. Fellner, Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons: A Challenge for
Medical Ethics, 38 J. AM. ACAD. PSYCHIATRY LAW 104-108 (2010).

Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences: Hearing Before the
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 112th Cong. 8
(2012) (written testimony of Professor Craig Haney) (footnote omitted), available at

Expert Report of Professor Craig Haney supra note 29.

See, e.g., Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F. Supp. 2d 855, 915 (S.D. Tex. 1999), rev’d on other grounds, 243 F.3d 941 (5th Cir. 2001),
adhered to on remand, 154 F. Supp. 2d 975 (S.D. Tex. 2001) (“Conditions in TDCJ-ID’s administrative segregation units

clearly violate constitutional standards when imposed on the subgroup of the plaintiffs’ class made up of mentally-ill
prisoners”); Coleman v. Wilson, 912 F. Supp. 1282, 1320-21 (E.D. Cal. 1995); Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 1265-66
(N.D. Cal. 1995); Casey v. Lewis, 834 F. Supp. 1477, 1549-50 (D. Ariz. 1993); Langley v. Coughlin, 715 F. Supp. 522, 540
(S.D.N.Y. 1988) (holding that evidence of prison officials’ failure to screen out from SHU “those individuals who, by virtue
of their mental condition, are likely to be severely and adversely affected by placement there” states an Eighth
Amendment claim).

See Bureau of Justice Statistics, Capital Punishment, 2010 - Statistical Tables (December 20, 2011), available at

See Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Death Row Facts, available at

Death Penalty Information Center, Innocence and the Death Penalty, available at (stating current number of exonerations); Death Penalty
Information Center, Executions by Year Since 1976, available at
(stating current number of executions).

A Death Before Dying | 13

Death Penalty Information Center, The Innocence List, available at


Pratt v. The Attorney General for Jamaica, Privy Council Appeal No. 10, 22 (1993).

Cox v. Canada, Comm. No. 539/1993, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/52/D/539 (1993); T.V. Vaitheeswaran v. State of Tamil Nadu, 2
SCR 348 (1983); Catholic Commission v. Attorney General, 2 Z.L.R. 306, (Zimbabwee 1993)’ Henfield v Attorney-General
of The Bahamas, AC 413 (PC 1997); Susan Kigula and 417 Others, No. 03 of 2006 (Uganda: Supreme Court 2009).


Soering v United Kingdom, 14038/88, 07/07/1989


Hilaire, Constantine and Benjamin et al. v. Trinidad and Tobago. Judgment of June 21, 2002. Series C No. 94.


See supra note 39.


Thompson v. Mcneil, 129 S.Ct. 1299, 1300 (2009).

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