In 1979, Arthur Lee Giles, then 19, was sentenced to death in Blount County, Al. Nearly 40 years later, he is still waiting to be executed. His glacial march to execution exposes a conundrum at the heart of U.S. death penalty, reports Slate. Condemned prisoners often spend decades on death row before being executed—if the execution ever happens at all—a fact that undermines any retributive value capital punishment might provide. About 40 percent of the 2,739 people on death row have spent at least 20 years awaiting execution, and 1 in 3 of these prisoners are older than 50, says the Fair Punishment Project. The Los Angeles Times says two dozen men on California’s death row require walkers and wheelchairs, and one is living out his days in bed wearing diapers. In North Carolina, nine death row prisoners have died of natural causes since 2006, the same year the state last executed someone.
The process that creates those delays cannot be eliminated without a corresponding increase in the risk of wrongful executions. Since 1973, 157 men and women have been exonerated. Decades spent awaiting an uncertain execution inflicts an additional and cruel layer of punishment on the condemned. Most death row inmates are housed alone for years in tiny concrete cells even as a growing body of evidence suggests the psychological burden of solitary confinement is tantamount to torture. In 2015, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned the humanity of confining prisoners “in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot.” With public support for executions at historic lows, death row delays seem likely to increase. Just 20 of the nearly 3,000 prisoners on death row nationwide were executed last year. To combat delays, California voters narrowly passed Proposition 66 last year, which promised to speed up executions by imposing more severe limitations on the death penalty appeals process.