Why Does It Take So Long Between a Death Sentence and an Execution?

There’s an ancient proverb that says the wheels of justice grind slowly, and nowhere is that maxim more true than in conjunction with the death penalty. The average prisoner remains on death row for over 16 years before being executed.

That’s if the convicted person is executed at all. Many death row inmates are left waiting for so long that they ultimately die of natural causes.

What’s the hold up? Primarily, it’s due to the various legal appeals. After being sentenced to death, defendants have a number of options to appeal for a less harsh sentence, if not overturning the conviction:

The first appeal, the direct appeal, is typically filed automatically after the initial trial is complete. Here, attorneys argue before the state’s highest judges over issues that arose during the trial.

If the death sentence stands, defendants can file a post-conviction petition to address other issues that didn’t come up during the original trial like new evidence or inadequate legal counsel.

Next, defendants can file a federal habeas corpus with the U.S. District Court to review any potential issues from the previous trials. Federal courts review briefs by both sides before determining whether an appeal here is warranted.

Finally, defendants can appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though the nation’s highest court considers a limited number of death penalty cases, this petition obviously extends the process while waiting to hear a definitive answer.

In fact, all of these legal proceedings take a long time. Attorneys can easily spend a full decade exhausting the various appeal options, which means that states can’t even reasonably entertain the idea of executing a death row inmate anytime close to their original conviction.

Another factor that takes a lot of time is the reexamination of evidence. Because of recent technological and DNA advancements, lawyers can push to retest evidence in ways that were not possible at the time of the original trial.

Allowing ample time for the appeals process matters because it is successful in so many instances. In fact, death row inmates are three times more likely to have their sentences reduced – generally to life without chance of parole – than to actually be executed.

Plus, when you consider that over 150 death row inmates have subsequently been exonerated in the past four decades, how much time is too much time to determine whether a person is innocent before killing him? A legal study estimates that about 4 percent of those sentenced to death are actually innocent.

Though execution delays have gotten longer over time, delays themselves are nothing new to capital punishment cases. An old study found in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies looked at all 5,826 inmates sentenced to death between 1973 and 1995. Only 5 percent of the prisoners in this time frame were actually executed.

In 2011, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion that an inmate’s 33 years on death row should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. At the time the Constitution was written, Breyer posited, executions occurred within a matter of days or weeks rather than decades.

Other countries’ judicial systems agree with Breyer that leaving prisoners in a position where they constantly think they could be killed soon amounts to psychological torture.

Still, that doesn’t seem like a reason to speed up the death penalty process, as it might lead to the hasty execution of potentially innocent people. It does, however, seem like a reason for ceasing capital punishment altogether. If it can’t be done responsibly in a short amount of time, perhaps it shouldn’t be done at all.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

78 comments

Jack Y
Jack Y5 months ago

thanks

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Jack Y
Jack Y5 months ago

thanks

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John J
John J5 months ago

thanks for sharing

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John J
John J5 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Chrissie R
Chrissie R9 months ago

One word: Lawyers!

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One Heart i
One Heart incabout a year ago

thanks!!!

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Wendi M.
Wendi M2 years ago

TYFS

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Brett Cloud
Brett Cloud2 years ago

Ty

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Brett Cloud
Brett Cloud2 years ago

Ty

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Marie W.
Marie W2 years ago

If you have a video of them doing the crime- why wait?

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