Why Executions Happen at Midnight

Capital punishment and the witching hour.

Tookie Williams

Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a founder of the Crips street gang and a convicted murderer, was executed last night by lethal injection in California’s San Quentin prison. The execution was scheduled for 12:01 a.m., but media witnesses said it took medical technicians 12 minutes to find a vein on Williams’ arm. He was pronounced dead at 12:35 a.m. PT. Why are executions frequently scheduled for 12:01?

Mainly because a death warrant is often good for just one day. According to the California Department of Corrections, if the execution is not carried out during that 24-hour period, the state must re-petition the court for another death warrant. Scheduling the execution for 12:01 a.m. gives the state as much time as possible to deal with last-minute legal appeals and temporary stays, which have a way of eating up time.


Another advantage is that the rest of the inmates are locked down and, presumably, asleep. That minimizes the threat of unrest at the appointed hour. The prison was also on a “modified lockdown” during the day on Monday to free up staff for Williams’ execution.

Holding such an important event in the middle of the night does present challenges. In 1997, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told an audience that it was not ideal to receive last-minute stay requests so late. “Dispensing justice at that hour of the morning is difficult, to say the least, and we have an obligation … to give our best efforts in every one of these instances.”

Since then, a few states, including Texas and Arizona, have switched to holding executions in the afternoon or evening to make the process slightly easier for judges, guards, and the families of victims.

Death sentences, both state-imposed and vigilante, were often carried out during daylight hours in earlier eras. Public hangings were major events, to which tickets were sold. The last public hanging in the United States, which occurred in Owensboro, Ky., in 1936, was held just after sunrise.

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Explainer thanks Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, and Kevin Kostecky of the California Department of Corrections.