How long does a convict typically spend on death row?

After watching a documentary on the Oklahoma City bombing, Tim McVeigh was put to death six years after he committed the crime. However Scott Peterson is still waiting although he killed Lacey over fourteen years ago. What is typical? What usually causes such a wide variation in the wait on death row?

It’s been four years. How much longer before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev takes the long walk for the 2013 Boston bombing?

There is a long appeal process for death row inmates. Because of the risk of putting an innocent person to death, there are many appeals and hearings to make 100% that the convict is in fact guilty. Mcveigh was an exception to this, as he deliberately waived his appeals.

There are significant issues expressed in the Scott Peterson appeal. It could bounce back between courts for years, or he might be released as a result of the appeal. (there were a lot of blunders made during his trial, and a retrial might not support a conviction at all)

Maybe he did it, but there were direct witnesses who observed someone else grabbing his wife, so…

Nitpick, the appeals are not to determine if the guy is “in fact guilty.” They are to insure the guy got a fair trial. As Justice Scalia famously said:

Typically convicts spend about fifteen years on death row. (Cite.)


That’s “typical” (i.e., something approximating a statistical average). We’ve seen some examples of “extreme”.

What’s at the other end? If a convict doesn’t launch his own appeal campaign, what’s the time like? (For the sake of argument, let’s leave out someone else appealing on his behalf through some other vehicle like an independent lawsuit or a out-of-the-blue habeas writ. But do incorporate any kind of mandatory automatic review process, because I do remember that some states have that.)

Some states have the death penalty on the books, with people actively being sentenced to death by the courts, but there isn’t actually a lot of interest in finishing the job. That drives averages down. There are states like Pennsylvania where 183 people are on death row and only three people have been executed in 40 years. That’s not all because of lengthy appeals. States can push a lot harder if they really want.

If every state was really gung-ho for the death penalty, it would look more like Virginia, where the average wait is something like eight years. (I believe something like 75% of death sentences in Virginia have resulted in an execution. The last time I looked, the only other state above 50% was Texas, and it was barely there.

I don’t mean to hijack this thread, but it got me thinking. If someone were on death row, and the state reversed its decision on execution, would the sentences of those on death row just be changed to life without parole, or would they get new sentencing trials? Or, would their sentences remain, but criminals in the future would not be sentenced to death?

In California, the death row inmates’ sentences where changed to “life with parole.” The most famous death row inmate, Charles Manson, keeps applying for and getting turned down for parole. His followers are also being denied parole.

In other news, the people they killed are still dead.

I’m not sure that statistic (let’s call it the “death sentences actually carried out” ratio) is really a reliable metric of how “gung-ho” a state is about the death penalty. If the statistic is calculated by taking the total number of executions so far and divide it by the total number of death sentences so far, then a state that has recently* had an increase in death sentences would have a lower “death sentences actually carried out” ratio - but not because the state has become sloppy about executing death row inmates, rather because the large number of recent death sentences haven’t (yet) had sufficient time to reach the point of execution. Nonetheless, I would call such a state rather “gung-ho” about the death penalty. A more reliable metric would be to wait until we know for sure that a convict will not be executed (because he or she was pardoned after all, or died of causes other than execution), and count him or her towards the statistic only then. Of course that would have the disadvantage of a very long waiting period, i.e., the data in your statistic would be quite old.

*): “Recently” by the standards of death row wait periods, which, as this thread shows, can be long. So a decade or so might still be “recently”.

That’s what I thought would happen. I wonder if Charlie wonders why they just won’t let him out. There’s a scary thought.

That is true, and those inmates who had prior to that happening been sentenced to the death penalty did have their sentences commuted to life without possibility of parole. However, the death penalty was reinstated by Proposition 17 a few months later. California has not executed anyone since 2006.

Capital Punishment in California

He’s there for the rest of his life.