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May 12, 2022

Spotlighting ever longer stays on death row before executions

NPR has this lengthy new piece headlined "U.S. inmates condemned to die are spending more time on death row." I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts from the beginning:

After spending decades on Arizona's death row, Clarence Dixon was executed on Wednesday for the 1978 murder of Deana Bowdoin.  At 66 years old, Dixon is just the most recent example of the growing population of aging inmates on America's death row.

"We're seeing death sentences near record lows. We're seeing executions at near record lows," Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told NPR. "There are fewer and fewer people on death row overall and the ones who remain on death row have been there longer."...

The average time between sentencing and execution has increased by two-thirds in the past 20 years — from 11.4 years in 2000 to 18.9 years in 2020, according to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Experts who spoke to NPR said this trend is due, in part, to changed opinions on capital punishment in the U.S., and a lengthier appeals process that delay executions.

For victims' families and these inmates, waiting decades to see their cases resolved takes its toll.  Some experts say 20 to 40 years on death row at the literal expense of the state raises questions of fair treatment of prisoners....

As of 2020, the average age of death row inmates nationally was 52 years old, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  More than 56% were white, 41% were Black. Men made up the majority of those prisoners — about 98%.

May 12, 2022 at 05:27 PM | Permalink


While there are a variety of contributing factors -- including delays in the state appeal process and litigation over execution protocols -- it is pretty clear that AEDPA did not succeed in its goal of shortening the federal habeas process. No federal court has found that a state has met the "opt-in" requirements for expedited capital habeas litigation, and the district courts have certainly not moved promptly to resolve capital habeas petitions.

Posted by: tmm | May 13, 2022 10:17:07 AM

These statistics certainly undermine the idea that the DP serves as a meaningful deterrent. We sentence only about 2% of murderers to death, and then it takes almost 20 years, assuming the sentence is ever carried out. There cannot be many who'd hesitate to commit a murder, given just a 2% chance that they might be put to death two decades in the future.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | May 13, 2022 1:57:13 PM

Marc Shepherd --

Good news and bad news. The bad news is that nothing used as rarely as the DP is going to be much of a deterrent. The good news is that its (skimpy) deterrent value is far from the main reason to keep it -- the main reason being simply that some crimes are so inhuman and grotesque that a prison sentence, no matter its length, could be considered just punishment.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 14, 2022 10:47:16 AM

Here in Kentucky, there is almost a silent conspiracy not to execute people on death row. It began about 1958, when the Attorney General brought Gov. Bert Combs a death warrant to sign, after the inmate had exhausted his appeals and habeas corpus collateral attacks. The Governor was taken aback, and said that he would have to think about it. He put the unsigned Death Warrant in his desk drawer, where it remained unsigned until the day he left office. Since 1953, Kentucky has executed only 5 people, and 2 of those inmates withdrew their appeals and asked to be put to death! Presently, there are only about 26 people on Death Row in Kentucky. They have a far better chance of dying of natural causes there than they do of ever being executed. One Kentucky Death Row inmate died of cancer circa 2009, after spending 28 years on death row without being executed.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | May 18, 2022 3:37:24 PM

Bill Otis: I agree with your last statement. One fact that the general public is that about half of the inmates on Federal Death Row in Terre Haute, Indiana are there for killing other inmates or guards after they went to Federal prison (usually with one or more life sentences). At USP-1, Coleman, Florida, circa 2005 0r 2006, an inmate who already had 3 life sentences killed his cellmate in The Hole (SHU) for stealing and selling the cigarettes that his friends had sent him from the Compound. That inmate was also suspected of having killed a DEA agent on the streets, but there was not enough evidence to prosecute him for that crime. His cellmate (an Orderly in SHU) lied, and said that the guards had intercepted his shipment of cigarettes. Eventually, he knocked his thieving cellmate unconscious and was on the concrete floor, banging the man's face into the bottom corner of the stainless steel shower. The guards looked thru the window and told the man to stop and come cuff up. Initially, the man stopped and stuck his hands and arms out the food port to cuff up. But the guards told him he was doing it wrong, and needed to turn around and cuff up from behind. The inmate then pulled his arms back thru the food port and started jumping up and down on his unconscious cellmates head, as the guards watched thru the door window. BOP policy is that guards don't unlock and enter a SHU cell unless the inmate is first cuffed up. After a few hops on the unconscious inmate's skull, his head split open like a ripe melon and he died. The Federal prosecutors sought and obtained the death penalty against that inmate.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | May 18, 2022 3:52:13 PM

Jim Gormley --

Thanks for that very informative post. In death penalty debates, which I've been doing for years, the question my opponents have the hardest time with is this: A killer with a long rap sheet gets LWOP for a heinous murder. He's going to be in prison for life, period. He then kills again in prison (say, in a way your comment describes). My question to my adversaries is: If we've abandoned the DP, what is the just punishment, consistent with the Eighth Amendment, for the second murder? Loss of canteen privileges? Five minutes less in the exercise yard? What?

In 20 years, I have never received an answer. The reason I've never received one is that, without the DP, there IS no just punishment, or, indeed, any punishment at all. Not for his second murder, or for his third or fourth.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 20, 2022 9:24:59 AM

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