Growing Old on Death Row

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California death penalty protest. photo by Malcolm Maclachlan via Flickr

In the 36 years that David Carpenter has been on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California, his routine has rarely changed.

He awakens early in the morning and exercises, despite suffering from arthritis, in the cramped space of his single-bunk cell before eating breakfast. Three days a week, he has access to a yard outside.

Once a month he attends a church service, one of the few activities that allows him time out of his cell, aside from medical appointments and visiting with friends and family, which he used to do regularly prior to COVID restrictions that have made the prison more isolated.

But most of the time, he stays inside his cell, which he’s grateful he does not have to share with anyone else.

“I control my lights,” he tells The Crime Report in an interview via snail mail. “I have my 15-inch color television. I can go to sleep when I want to at night, take a nap during the day, and write letters and read when I want to. I have the freedom in a single cell that I would not have in a two-man cell.”

At the age of 91, there’s one other thing he can be grateful for.

In 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended capital punishment. As long as Newsom remains governor, executions will not occur, which has effectively given Carpenter a lease on life.

He is keenly aware of the irony.

“Because no one has been executed in California, death row inmates (in this state) have grown older with each passing year,” he acknowledged in his note to The Crime Report. “If California was like Texas, [which] executes people shortly after being found guilty and [sentenced to death] I would have been executed years ago.”

In 1984, Carpenter, also known as The Trailside Killer, was sentenced to death for shooting and killing two women. Then, in 1988, he was found guilty of murdering five women, raping two others, and attempting to rape a third. He was later tried and convicted of two additional murders and an attempted murder.

Although he still claims he is innocent, the odds are that he will die behind bars.

But should he remain on death row?

Carpenter, now one of the oldest individuals awaiting execution in the U.S., belongs to a growing segment of the prison demographic. In 2019, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, some 574 prisoners on death row in the U.S. were aged 60 or over.

In 1996 that figure was just 39.

Justice reformers say the aging of American prisoners places extra burdens on correctional health care.

According to the National Institute of Corrections, prisons spend at least twice as much to incarcerate the elderly as they do to incarcerate younger prisoners. Elderly prisoners cost prison systems between $60,000 and $70,000 annually, much of that spent on caring for their medical needs.

But the aging of death row represents a special problem.

Some 1,200 of the 2,800 inmates awaiting execution are aged 50 and over. Demographic trends suggest that over-50 population will increase, as America’s death rows are increasingly transformed into high-cost homes for senior citizens.

Death row, San Quentin prison, 2015. Photo by Stephen Lam Cloud Gate Blue via Flickr

Death rows are “very expensive to maintain,” James Alan Fox, Ph.D., a professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University, told The Crime Report in an interview.

“They are based on single-cell occupancy as opposed to double or triple. They often have a higher guard-inmate ratio. It’s expensive.”

Adding to the cost is the long, drawn-out appeals process trigged by a death sentence. Statistics suggest that the length of the post-conviction appeals process offers a final check on a wrongful conviction. A 2014 National Academy of Sciences study found that approximately 4 percent of death row inmates are innocent.

However, as courts scrutinize details of appeals, men and women condemned to death are not only growing old, but becoming afflicted with dementia or other disabling diseases of age.

Since 2000, 11 death row inmates ranging in age from 65 to 77 have been executed. Some, according to scholars.org, ‘were disabled, demented, or both.”

And as more states reject or sidestep capital punishment, the issue of what do with aging prisoners on death row presents a dilemma with moral, constitutional and economic dimensions.

Some critics argue that keeping ailing and enfeebled individuals behind bars―some with no memory of the crime they are in for―is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

But it also raises questions about whether a system in which capital punishment is invariably accompanied by a long appeals process that leaves people to grow old on Death Row makes sense.

“One way is just to substitute life without parole for death,” Fox told The Crime Report.

“You keep them off the street, which is the desire that people have, and keep them in prison longer…I understand that people are worried about the cost, (but) death row trials are very expensive. They’re longer, they have more witnesses, more experts.”

Meanwhile, Carpenter is philosophical about his situation.

“In a way, being in my cell on death row is like someone in the military being restricted to base,” he writes. “You don’t dwell on what you don’t have; you focus on what you do have, and in this way, stay as positive as you can be.”

Maria DiLorenzo, based in Brooklyn, NY, has written for various publications, including the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Flea, Real Crime, and VTPost.com. She recently started a blog called Beyond the Crime, which shares stories of those incarcerated for murder to gain a deeper understanding of criminal behavior and the criminal justice system.

One thought on “Growing Old on Death Row

  1. The 7 women he murdered do not have the luxury of controlling their lights, having a 15 inch TV, getting their food and laundry prepared for them, and having a warm place to sleep. I am not a death penalty advocate, but this article is offensive to victims’ families and the public.

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