Last Updated on October 14, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team
The death penalty has always been a controversial part of the American justice system but today it remains authorized in twenty-seven different US states and each year, there is an average addition of 30 death sentences issued.
However, one of the most curious things about the death penalty is the long waiting time it takes between a conviction and the execution itself.
This waiting time is often referred to as ‘death row’ and is an agonizing long wait – but why does it take so long for convicts to finally be executed?
Here, we are going to be taking a closer look at death row including why it takes so long for a prisoner on the waiting list for the death penalty to finally experience it.
This way, you can have a better understanding of the American justice system and how it works. So, let’s dive right in!
What Is Death Row?
In the US, twenty-seven states can punish convicted felons with the death penalty, otherwise knwn as capital punishment.
Capital punishment is a penalty only imposed on serious crimes such as murder, espionage, trafficking, and treason.
This means that those facing the death penalty are those who are guilty of serious crimes, but most death penalties are imposed on those found guilty of murder.
However, a prisoner is not executed the moment the judge imposes the death penalty.
Instead, the prisoner is taken back to their cell and placed on death row – the official term given to prisoners who are facing execution.
Right now, there are around 2,500 prisoners in the US waiting for their own execution, meaning that they are all on ‘death row’.
However, this number has been in steady decline over the years.
The death penalty has been around in the US pretty much since it’s creation but there are now far less sentences carried out each year compared to the numbers in the past.
For example, in the 1980s, an average of around 280 death sentences were passed every year – while in recent years this number has only hit the heights of around 40.
Despite this, the death penalty remains legal in the US, is still in favor in some form by a majority of the US population, and hundreds of prisoners remain waiting for their execution every year.
How Long Is A Prisoner On Death Row?
Officially, there is no official length of time a prisoner must remain on death row for.
Some only wait for a short time between their conviction and their execution, while others can wait nearly a quarter of a century.
On average, a prisoner will wait around twenty years on death row before they are either executed, re-sentenced, or exonerated.
This is a stark contrast to just a few decades ago in the 1980s, when the average prisoner time on death row was just over five years.
This difference could be attributed to the fact that there were far more prisoners waiting on death row back in the 80s compared to today, but executions only reached a high point in the late 90s with just under a hundred executions each year.
This means that for a long time, more prisoners were being sentenced with the death penalty than were actually being executed, leading to long waiting lists for executions.
So, the average prisoner can expect to wait at least twenty years for their execution – but why does it take so long for a prisoner to be executed?
Reasons Why Death Row Takes So Long
There are many different reasons why the wait on death row takes such a long time in the US, and some are more surprising than others.
So, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why death row takes so long for so many prisoners.
The Waiting List For The Lethal Injection
Out of all the execution methods for death row, the most commonly used method is the lethal injection.
In some states, this is the only legal method of execution and so many prisons need to get their hands on the necessary drugs to make the lethal injection.
However, procuring the drugs necessary for the execution isn’t as easy as you may first assume.
A lot of drug companies have prohibited rules in their contracts which prevents them from being used in executions.
This means that if a state prison wants to purchase a stock of the drug from the manufacturer, they have to agree that it will not be used to carry out an execution.
This is why so many states struggle to source enough drugs to carry out the executions.
A lot of drug manufacturers do not want their products to be associated with murder and death, so to protect their brand image, they refuse to sell their products to potential executioners.
As a result, states have to try and source their drugs elsewhere – which has resulted in a lot of botched executions where the prisoner did not die or introduce complications which makes the execution cruel and torturous.
So, one reason why so many prisoners are stuck on death row is simply because the prisons and state cannot source the right drugs needed for an execution.
They are forced to sit around and wait until their state can source the correct drugs and carry out the execution in a humane way.
Of course, this is not always the reason why death row takes so long.
Some states allow for other methods of execution such as hanging, electrocution, and death by firing squad.
So – what other reasons are there?
The Appeal Process
The main reason why death row takes so long is because each prisoner has the right to an appeal, but the appeal process is long and complicated and is made up of lots of different necessary steps.
The prisoner’s defense team are allowed to take multiple different routes to try and get their clients’ death sentence overturned.
This includes starting the post-trial motions for an acquittal, asking for a different sentence, requesting a new trial altogether and even motioning for a mistrial.
If none of these work out, then the team can then make a direct appeal to the judge or to the state’s highest court for a review.
After appealing to the state’s highest court, the team can then appeal to the federal court and raise any issues they have or a rights violation.
If this avenue also fails, then the case can be petitioned to the US Supreme Court.
As you can see, there are plenty of different avenues a defense team can take and for a prisoner on death row, they might as well exhaust every single one of them.
If they don’t, then their fate is sealed so most death row prisoners start the long and lengthy appeal system in order to try and save their own skin.
This is a completely understandable action to take and in the eyes of the state, it is also for the best.
As the years go by after each appeal, there is always the chance of new information and evidence coming to light – and this new evidence could prove that the prisoner on death row is actually innocent.
Statistically, there’s a chance that around 5% of the prisoners on death row are actually innocent of their crimes so allowing the prisoner to wait on death row for so many years gives them more time to appeal their sentence and potentially prove themselves to be innocent.
So, death row is basically a waiting period for prisoners until their legal execution.
This waiting time on average stretches for decades as many prisoners try appeal after appeal to get their sentence overturned.
Not only that but prisons and states struggle to source the drugs needed to carry out a painless execution by lethal injection, and this means that resources are scarce and the state cannot carry out as many lethal injection executions as it needs.
The results of both these are seriously long waiting periods for prisoners on death row.