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October 9, 2020

The new death penalty: COVID has now killed as many US prisoners as has a quarter century of capital punishment

I am sad to report that we are approaching yet another stunning milestone in COVID prisoner deaths, which prompts another one of my series of "new death penalty" posts.  The Marshall Project is continuing with the critical job of keeping an updated count via this webpage of deaths from coronavirus reported among prisoners, and as of the morning of Thursday, October 8, this accounting had tabulated "at least 1211 deaths from coronavirus reported among prisoners." 

As I have said in other posts, this considerable and ever-growing number is sad and disconcerting on its own terms, but it is even more remarkable given that it amounts to roughly the same number of prisoner deaths resulting from carrying out formal death sentences in the United States for the entire period from 1996 to 2020.  According to DPIC data, there were a total of 1213 executions from the start of 1996 through today.

Of course, as I have mentioned before, comparing capital punishment and COVID incarceration carnage is problematic in many ways.  All persons executed in the US in recent times have been convicted of the most aggravated forms of murder.  The vast majority of prisoners to die of COVID were not criminally responsible for a death (although, as noted here, some persons on California's death row are part of the COVID prisoner death count).  In a few older posts here and here, I noted that nearly half of the early reported deaths of federal prisoners involved individuals serving time for drug crimes.  

Another problem with comparing capital punishment and COVID incarceration carnage relates to that correctional staff do not die from administering capital punishment, but many have died from COVID.  The Marshall Project reports "at least 85 deaths from coronavirus reported among prison staff."  I remain pleasantly surprised that this too-big number is not even larger, but I will be ever troubled by the thought that all these COVID casualty numbers could have been lower if more aggressive depopulation efforts were taken to move the most vulnerable and least risky persons out of the super-spreader environment that prisons represent.

A few of many prior related posts:

October 9, 2020 at 09:13 AM | Permalink


Prof., one of my clients (71 years old) died two days ago in a prison in Eastern Oregon. He had been convicted by a 10-2 verdict many years ago and was servng a virtual life sentence. I was raising a Ramos issue for him on a successive post conviction petition. A damn shame.

Posted by: Michael R Levine | Oct 10, 2020 12:24:07 AM

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