february 3, 2014 (economist.com)
GARY ALVORD, a Florida man who was sentenced to death for strangling three women, died in May 2013—of natural causes. He had been on death row for nearly 40 years. The state never executed him because he was “too crazy to be killed“, as the Tampa Bay Times put it: “In 1984, he was sent to a state hospital in Chattahoochee to be restored to competence. But doctors there refused to treat him, citing the ethical dilemma of making a patient well just so that he could be killed. He was quietly returned to death row in 1987 and remained there ever since. His final appeal expired in 1998.”
Alvord’s case was extreme, but condemned prisoners in America typically spend a very long time waiting to die. The appeals process drags on for decades. It is endlessly painstaking because no one wants to see an innocent prisoner executed. Even the most enthusiastic advocates of capital punishment know that such a miscarriage of justice would undermine their cause. For prisoners who are actually put to death, the average time that elapses between sentence and execution has risen from six years in the mid-1980s to 16.5 years now. And even that startling figure makes the process sound quicker than it is, since most condemned prisoners will never be put to death. It’s simple maths.
At the end of 2011, there were 3,082 prisoners on state and federal death rows in America. That year, 43 were executed. At the current rate (which is slowing) a condemned prisoner has a one-in-72 chance of being executed each year. Since the average death row inmate was 28 when first convicted, it seems unlikely that more than a fraction of them will ever meet the executioner. In 2011 24 condemned prisoners died of natural causes and 70 had their sentences commuted or overturned. (There were 80 fresh death sentences passed in 2011, so the number of people on death row shrank by 57.)
We can expect the number who die of old age to increase. The death penalty was restored only in 1976, so nearly everyone on death row was convicted after that date, and most were young when convicted. As they get older, more will start to die each year of heart attacks, strokes and cancer. Conditions on death row are grim; inmates age fast. They are often locked up in a solitary cell for 23 hours a day. Throughout this time, they live in fear that soon they will be strapped to a gurney and pumped full of lethal chemicals. Some lawyers argue that death row itself amounts to a cruel and unusual punishment of the sort the constitution forbids.