Through law’s delays, a quarter century on Death Row

The Arizona Supreme Court upheld an inmate’s sentence of death 25 years ago; he’s now died of natural causes at age 94, the sentence having been neither lifted nor put into effect in all those years. John Steele Gordon: “It seems to me this country should either abolish the death penalty or reform the system to make it effective.”


  • Precisely. What good is sentencing someone to death if they end up dying of natural causes at age 94?

  • This is understandable from the perspective of trying to run out the clock. Probably by the time of his conviction and sentencing he’s 70. Even with good health it would have been unlikely to make it to 94. And with many death penalty cases taking 15+ years to run the gauntlet of processes appeals, it is easy to see why no one was in a rush to push this forward aggressively. Then he goes and has the indecency to live for 28 years; of all the nerve.

  • “This country should either abolish the death penalty or reform the system to make it effective.”

    Nothing to disagree with there. As it stands, however, we have a democratic system with two sides of roughly equal number that disagree on an issue on which compromise is impossible. I wish I knew the answer.

  • Is old age a valid death penalty method? I’d rather something swifter like hanging, a firing squad, or lethal injection; but old age is just as effective.

  • Even if our system eliminated capital punishment entirely, and the next lesser sentence became the ultimate penalty for the most heinous crimes, there would still be a hugely protracted deliberation and appeals process. This story would still be the same. Instead of there being an anti-death penalty argument, we’d have an anti-life-w/o-parole argument. Which means the irony of the Nash story would thicken. So long as he was alive, there would likely be some diligent 3L writing an appeal brief. And on some bench there would be a judge who’d be willing to listen, deliberate, and order (yet another) lengthy review.

  • The blame here rests entirely with the Ninth Circuit. Not sure what the answer is if we’re going to continue to refrain from impeaching lawless judges.

    I think @Todd puts his finger on the best reason for keeping the death penalty: at the margin, it’s not really costing us more than abolishing it, because the resources currently wasted on death penalty litigation would surely be wasted somewhere else in the criminal justice system if the lawyers currently fighting a delaying action in death-penalty cases were freed to litigate other cases.

  • I’m told that given the protracted appeals process for capital crimes and the higher levels of security around the condemned cells, that prisoners on death row have a higher life expectancy than lifers.

    Could this possibly be true?

  • We need to impeach lawless judges? This reminds me of the movement to impeach George Bush, which was also utter nonsense. Impeachment for political disagreement?

    Somewhere, Ted, Andrew Johnson is bitter about that comment.

  • @Miller. Impeachment for failing to fulfill their Article III duties. I recognize that this is a politically unpopular idea, and one that is never going to happen.

    But I also recognize that the original Constitutional structure anticipated that there would never be a problem with judges abusing their power because Congress would impeach judges that strayed from proper interpretation of the laws and Constitution. (See Federalist No. 83.) At some point, such impeachment became politically untenable, and the critical check in the checks and balances of the system were lost, and we have the outcome we have today where judges can ignore the law with impunity; instead of coequal branches, we have judicial supremacy.

  • TF>…if the lawyers currently fighting a delaying action in death-penalty cases were freed to litigate other [criminal] cases…

    I actually doubt that any very large fraction of the ingenuity devoted to foiling the death penalty would be redirected to foiling long criminal sentences. The difference is that getting a prisoner off Death Row is the sort of peak legal experience that one expects to tell one’s grandkids about, while getting someone’s 80-year sentence cut to 35 just isn’t, at least not if the success comes at the front end of the sentence. I believe Prof. Berman of Sentencing Law & Policy has written powerfully about the contrast in glamour between the death penalty — the subject of innumerable law school, pro bono and volunteer projects — and the comparatively neglected problem of excessive noncapital sentences (at least when innocence is not an issue).

  • That reminds me of the old Three Stooges joke, when they are sentenced to death by a judge: “How would you like to die?” Answer: “Old age!”

  • The law was not always so dilatory.
    On the afternoon of May 11, 1812, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Sir Spencer Perceval, was assassinated by John Bellingham in one of the ante-rooms to the House of Commons.
    An inquest was held the next day, and returned a verdict of murder. John Bellingham was indicted and having refused to plead ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ was found guilty by a jury. He was sentenced to death.
    The sentence was carried out on May 18, 1812.

  • Continuing….
    There was of course, no doubt that Bellingham was the guilty party. He was subdued by onlookers.
    The great paradox of the death penalty is contained in the following aphorism:
    In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

    A majority would agree that there ARE killers who have forfeited the right to live among a civil society. (opps! almost said civilised!). The practical matter of *ensuring* that the prisoner you have in hand, is in fact the killer (who deserves a needle in the arm), is the difficult part.

    Two things would make a difference to the prospect of never-ending appeals:
    1) ONE appeal only, covering ALL aspects of the trial and the evidence. This is the standard in England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand.
    2) Prosecutors should be required to provide exculpatory evidence, on pain of PENAL sanctions, and to provide DNA evidence etc. UPON REQUEST. I remain astounded that this sort of question has not been the object of a federal civil rights action (section 1982???).
    Yes, there are exceptions to the ‘one appeal’ rule, generally for situations where after acquired evidence comes to light. In Ontario, Guy Paul Morin was acquited at his first trial in 1986, and convicted of murder at his second trial. In 1995, DNA testing excluded him as the murderer, and the Court of Appeal took the unusual step of entering a directed verdict of not guilty, The Kaufman Enquiry later reported instances of police and prosecutorial misconduct, but no-one was ever punished.
    Further regarding disclosure, Canadian prosecutors have been obliged to make full disclosure of ALL inculpatory and exculpatory evidence for over 20 years, following the Supreme Court decision in Stinchcombe.

  • One argument that Mario Cuomo used against capital punishment was that life without parole was even harsher. I agree and point to the Van Houten girl who was involved in the Tate/LaBianca murders. She was to be executed, but was spared by a goofy decision of the Supreme Court.

    At that time of her, trial Ms. Van Houten’s loyalty to Charles Manson masked any human decency she may have had and the death penalty would have been proper in my opinion. She matured into a lovely young woman who understood her crime and expressed great sorrow for it. She was a different person, but the punishment continued. It made me very sad

    Long prison terms are overused in my opinion. Sargent Koon and Officer Powell were given thirty years for the merciless beating of Rodney king. The beating was so bad that King had no serious injury. The beating was about the shoulder area where one would stick to get compliance with cuffing. Kimg was also given $3.8 million that he squandered on rap music. This was gross injustice driven by emotions.