This week, the federal Bureau of Prisons was scheduled to execute its first federal prisoner in 17 years, but a federal judge delayed the execution because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just three days before the execution of convicted killer Daniel Lewis Lee, Judge Jane Magnus-Stimson of the Southern District of Indiana sided with Lee’s victims’ families in their request for a delay in the execution. Lee was convicted of killing a family of three.
Lee’s death was supposed to usher in a new era for the death penalty in the United States, as three other men convicted of child murder are due to be executed in the coming weeks.
Last year, President Trump’s administration announced that they would reinstate the death penalty for federal prisoners after only three federal prisoners had been executed since a 16-year moratorium was lifted in 1988. However, a series of court decisions delayed the scheduled execution date.
Although the federal government has not actually carried out executions in the past few decades, many states continue to use the death penalty, despite controversy surrounding the substances needed for executions.
All of this brings me to today’s blog topic: Why Are Prisoners on Death Row?
In this blog post, I’ll cover the following topics:
- Why do prisoners spend so long on death row?
- How many prisoners are on death row?
- Can you visit death row inmates?
Why do prisoners spend so long on death row?
When prisoners are convicted of taking at least one human life, they are sentenced to death. Currently, all death row inmates in the United States have been convicted of murder.
Yet throughout our nation’s history, the death penalty has been used in rape cases, especially against black defendants with white victims.
When the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, they did leave open the possibility for someone to be sentenced for a crime other than murder, such as rape or armed robbery.
However, they quickly changed their position, stipulating that the death penalty cannot be applied in cases where there is no death. Questions remain about whether the death penalty can be used for crimes against the government, such as treason or espionage.
Prisoners sentenced to death typically serve twenty years or more in prison before being executed. The reason prisoners spend so long on death row is because they must have the opportunity to exhaust all appeals before execution.
Many of those sentenced to death have claimed their innocence. And, when DNA evidence became available in the United States in the early 1990s, more than 20 death-row inmates were eventually acquitted.
The cases of other death-row prisoners were overturned due to procuratorate failures, insufficient evidence, and insufficient assistance from lawyers. The Death Penalty Information Center also has a list of ten inmates they claim were “executed but likely innocent”.
Because some people were sentenced to death and later proved innocent, some people believe that our system should not execute quickly.
How many prisoners are on death row?
As of January 1, 2020, there were 2,620 death row inmates in the United States. However, this number does change periodically due to new convictions, appeal decisions to overturn convictions, commutation of sentences, and deaths (through execution or other causes).
At the federal level, as of July 2019, there were 61 death row inmates. And, since 1927, the US federal government has executed 37 people.
In the military, four are currently on death row and they have executed 135 people since 1916.
Twenty-two states have abolished the death penalty, but thousands remain on death row in the remaining 28 states.
The states that have abolished the death penalty are: Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine, Minnesota, Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, Iowa, West Virginia, North Dakota, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware, Washington, New Hampshire, and Colorado.
Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands have also abolished the death penalty.
The total number of states with death row inmates is as follows:
- Alabama 172
- Arizona 116
- Arkansas 29
- california 737
- Florida 339
- Georgia 41
- Idaho 8
- Indiana 8
- Kansas 10
- Kentucky 27
- Louisiana 70
- Mississippi 41
- Missouri 29
- Montana 2
- Nebraska 12
- Nevada 76
- new hampshire 1
- North Carolina 143
- Ohio 138
- Oklahoma state 46
- Oregon 35
- Pennsylvania 128
- south carolina 37
- South Dakota 1
- Tennessee 51
- Texas 224
- Utah 7
- Virginia 2
- Wyoming 0
Can you visit death row inmates?
The answer to this question depends on the facility. Most prisons do allow death row inmates to have relationships with family and friends before they are convicted.
In other words, you can’t just have a pen pal relationship with a serial killer on death row, or any other person sentenced to death, and visit them in prison.
All visitors must obtain prior approval from the federal Bureau of Prisons or the state Department of Corrections before being permitted to visit an inmate.
Some facilities require death row inmates to receive only non-contact visits, but there are also prisons that allow death row inmates to have contact visits with close relatives.
If you have questions about visitation rules at a particular prison, all you need to do is contact the Prison Insights Locator for more detailed access information.
Do you think we should abolish the death penalty? Let us know in the comments below.
Source: DPIC Analysis: Use of the death penalty for killing a child victim Federal Judge puts a halt to Monday execution at Terre Haute’s federal prison