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Pain and Suffering Not Inherent to Death Penalty & Time on Death Row


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Pain and Suffering Not Inherent to Death Penalty

Although much of what is painful about the death penalty is inextricably linked to the ultimate execution, there is some suffering which is peripheral to executions and hence may constitute a form of torture. The length of time that people spend on death row in the U.S. is quite long and not an essential or an intended part of the punishment. Also, the methods of execution used in some states is gratuitously violent and torturous.

Time on Death Row

Death row inmates are subjected to years of uncertainty under dismal physical conditions not knowing when they will be executed. Albert Camus noted that "[t]he devastating, degrading fear that is imposed on the condemned for months or years is a punishment more terrible than death."

The average time between sentencing and execution in the U.S. is eight and a half years. There are over 3,500 inmates on death row and many have been there for 10 or even 15 years. Every year, many inmates give up legitimate appeals and ask that their executions go forward as quickly as possible. While the delay might seem to favor those who want to avoid their execution, it works against those who have been wrongly convicted or sentenced in that their relief is delayed. Over 35 percent of death sentences are overturned on appeal.

The time spent on death row is not inherent to the death penalty. It is the product of a number of factors. To begin with, in many cases incompetent attorneys are assigned to death cases and they frequently make fundamental mistakes in their representation. These cases may result in retrials and considerable delay. Another independent factor is the backlog of cases of all types which appellate judges have to consider. Appeals submitted by defense attorneys or prosecutors sometimes take years before a decision is rendered. Because of the high stakes in a death case, both sides typically appeal every adverse ruling. Only a part of the resultant delay is the responsibility of the defendant. In some cases, the state delays for years before even assigning an attorney to handle a death penalty appeal. The typical wait in California for the appointment of an attorney to just start the appeals process is three to four years.

The attention of courts around the world have been drawn to the torment of the prisoner in this situation. In Pratt v. Attorney General of Jamaica, the highest court in the United Kingdom unanimously ruled that a 14-year delay between the trial and execution rendered the pending execution to be "cruel" and "inhumane." The British Privy Council ruled that such an inordinate delay would never have been permitted under English common law and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. In considering a case involving a 17-year delay in U.S. courts, Justice Stevens of the Supreme Court called for consideration of this "important" issue by intermediate courts and hinted that the issue may become ripe for the Supreme Court in the future.

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