A Life Sentence on Death Row

What percentage of death sentences are actually carried out?

People protesting the execution of Troy Davis

The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole refused to grant clemency to Troy Davis, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1991 for killing a police officer. Davis’ execution has been stayed three times in the past, but the denial of clemency seems to have extinguished his last hope to avoid the death penalty. [Update, 11:08 p.m., Sept. 21: Davis was executed after a brief reprieve Wednesday night.] When a defendant is sentenced to death, what are his chances of actually being executed?

They’re slim. No one keeps official statistics on the percentage of death sentences carried out, because there are more than 3,000 inmates who remain on death row with unknown outcomes. There are, however, mountains of related statistics suggesting that a condemned man has an excellent shot at eluding the executioner one way or another. States are condemning murderers at a much higher rate than they’re actually putting them to death. In 2009, 52 people were executed (PDF), compared to 106 death sentences handed down.

The average killer is 28 years old at the time of his arrest, and it takes an average of 14 years between sentencing and execution. But these data include only those inmates whose executions were actually carried out; many are not. To put it into perspective, 323 people were condemned in 1996. Fourteen years later, in 2010, only 10 people were executed. It is not uncommon for inmates to spend more than 20 years on death row, and one man challenged his execution on the basis that a 32-year wait (PDF) and repeated stays of execution constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

So what happens to all these non-executed people? Most spend their lives in prison. In more than two-thirds of capital cases, appeals courts annul the original trial (PDF) because of significant errors. The prosecutor sometimes fails to reveal potentially exonerating evidence. The judge may have given poor instructions to the jury. Or an appeals court could find that the defendant’s lawyer—usually an overburdened public defender or a court-appointed private attorney working for very modest fees—was incompetent. When any of these things happens, the inmate gets a fresh trial and the whole process begins anew.

It’s a lot more difficult for the state to win a death sentence the second or third time around. Eyewitnesses crucial to the first trial may start to waver, and some may no longer be around to take the stand. Public furor over the crime subsides, and juries may not be as willing to impose the death penalty. Some defendants lead productive lives in prison between their initial sentencing and the second trial—they join churches, write books, and work with at-risk youth—making them much more sympathetic. In some cases, the state doesn’t even bother seeking the death penalty again.

Of the 68 percent of defendants who win a new trial, three-quarters receive a lesser sentence. Seven percent are acquitted. Eighteen percent get the death penalty a second time, but those convictions run back through the appeals cycle and can be overturned again.

Many inmates die on death row before being executed. In 33 years since California reinstated the death penalty, 78 of the state’s death row inmates have died by natural causes, suicide, accident, or violence. Only 14 have been executed. Two California death row inmates died natural deaths in March alone.

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