LeRoy Nash, 89, is the oldest inmate on death row int he United States. Nash, who is confined in Arizona, has plenty of company, says USA Today. A record 110 prisoners aged 60 and older were on death rows as of Dec. 31, 2003, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says. That’s nearly triple the 39 death row seniors nine years earlier. During the same period, the total number of convicts under death sentences rose 18.3 percent, to 3,374.
The rising number of death row seniors is raising new questions for courts and public relations issues for prison officials. Nash and another elderly killer have asked federal judges to rule on the constitutionality of executing inmates with dementia, Alzheimer’s or other age-related maladies. Executing a lame, deaf and infirm senior – even one who has committed aggravated murder – is a prospect that few prison wardens relish, says law Prof. Jonathan Turley of George Washington University. A few seniors are on death row because they committed aggravated murder at an unusually old age. Many others are there because death penalty appeals can stretch for decades. The last senior citizen to be executed, Donald Beardslee of California, was put to death in January at 61, after 21 years of appeals. North Carolina convict Jerry Cummings began appealing his murder conviction in 1966, when he was 27. It has been set aside and reinstated twice; he’s now 65. Death penalty supporters say it is disingenuous for seniors to prolong their appeals and to then argue that they are too old to be executed.