On Aug. 31, the death penalty will go on trial at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The oral argument stems from a judgment in 2014, in which Federal District Judge Cormac Carney ruled that California’s death penalty system was unconstitutional.
Carney argued that because of the extremely low likelihood of execution and long delays on death row, the system was actually a penalty of life without parole with the remote possibility of death. His ruling declared that execution after such a long delay serves no retributive or deterrent purpose beyond the long prison term, and is therefore arbitrary and unconstitutional (see Jones v. Chappell, 2014). As Carney wrote in his California decision, no rational jury or legislature would design a system that functions as the system actually works. But, he argued, we must evaluate the system we do have, not the one we might prefer to have.
Nationwide, the “new” death penalty consists of 20 years or more on death row, followed by some probability of execution. The average delay from crime to execution for those executed since 2010 is 16 years across the United States, even longer in California, as the judge noted. 38 % of inmates executed nationally since 2010 served more than 20 years; 17 % served more than 25 years; 5 inmates were killed after more than 35 years of delay. The vast majority are never executed.
In a previous post Anna Dietrich and I documented that only about 16 % of condemned inmates across the nation have been executed. By far, the most likely outcome of a death sentence is that it will be overturned on appeal. Many death row inmates simply die of old age. For those few where the death sentence is actually carried out, increasing percentages languish on death row literally for decades before execution.
Supporters of the death penalty argue that Carney overstepped with his sweeping decision throwing out the entire California death penalty. Oral arguments in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will begin at the end of this month. California certainly was at the low end of the distribution of “efficiency” in carrying out its death sentences in our previous analysis. Out of more than 900 death sentences, the state has carried out just 13 executions. It stands as one of the few states, along with Pennsylvania, that has large numbers of death sentences that result in very few executions.
What’s the lag time between sentence and execution outside California?
Except for Virginia, no state in the country carries out even 1/2 of all its death sentences. The most common outcome after a death penalty, by far, is reversal of the death sentence with a new sentence of life without parole. Inmates may sit on death row for years before this reversal.
This graph looks at 1,379 of the 1,394 executions that were carried out between 1977 and 2014 (I could not recover the date of the crime for 15 cases), showing the length of time from crime to execution. Of course, inmates do not move straight from the crime scene to death row. However, there has been no significant increase in the time between crime and death sentence, which averages 1.5 years.
Why is there so much time from sentence to execution?
Delays come for many reasons. Death penalties in California and elsewhere trigger a mandatory appeal to a state’s top court, and then, if not reversed, through the federal system. These are part of the safeguards mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1976 Gregg decision ushering in the “modern” death penalty. Carney noted that in California, appeals attorneys are not appointed for 3 to 5 years. They take 4 years to learn the case and file their appeal. Attorneys for habeas appeal (through the federal courts) are not appointed, on average, until 8 to 10 years after the death sentence.
Most of this delay results from a severe backlog of death penalty cases, a lack of qualified attorneys who are willing to accept capital assignments under the conditions that the state offers, and delays in appointing required qualified defense counsel.
How long does it take, exactly, to carry out the death penalty?
Each dot on the figure refers to a particular inmate executed. At the lower-left corner, the 1st case is the 1st “modern” execution: Gary Gilmore, executed by firing squad in Utah in 1977. Vertical placement of the dot indicates the number of years from the crime to the execution. Horizontal placement indicates the date of the execution.
As you can see, some executions occur relatively quickly, even today. Across the bottom of the graph are those inmates who “volunteer” for execution by instructing their attorneys to abandon all appeals. 20 of the 206 inmates executed since 2010 waited fewer than 5 years from crime to execution. However, you can see that average delays are increasing dramatically (about one additional year of delay every 3 years), and that increasing numbers of inmates are serving very long sentences before being executed. Many more remain on death row with no execution in sight.
For the 206 inmates executed since 2010, their average time from crime to execution was 16 years. 36 served more than 25 years before their execution. Overall, through 2014, 178 inmates have been executed after serving more than 20 years; 58 after more than 25 years; 14 after more than 30 years; and 5 after more than 35 years. Florida executed Thomas Knight in January 2014 for a crime committed in January 1974 – almost 40 years later. In contrast, Gilmore was killed by Utah’s firing squad in January 1977 for a crime that occurred in July 1976. Knight’s crime came 2 years before Gilmore’s, but he waited another 37 years after Gilmore’s execution on Florida’s death row before that state put him to death.
In the recent Glossip v. Gross decision affirming the use of lethal injection, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed its support for the death penalty in the opening words of the majority decision: “Because capital punishment is constitutional, there must be a constitutional means for carrying it out.”
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer noted a number of practical problems with the administration of the punishment. He noted 3 “fundamental constitutional defects”: 1) unreliability; 2) arbitrariness; and 3) unconscionably long delays. These have led, he wrote, to 4) abandonment of the penalty by most places within the United States. Since the Court’s 1976 reaffirmation of capital punishment, replete with new constitutional “safeguards sufficient to ensure that the penalty would be applied reliably and not arbitrarily,” numerous practical problems have emerged, Breyer wrote. “The circumstances and the evidence of the death penalty’s application have changed radically since then,” he wrote. “Given those changes, I believe it is now time to reopen the question.”
Source: The Washington Post, Frank Baumgartner, August 5, 2015. Mr. Baumgartner is the Richard J. Richardson distinguished professor of political science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.