Why do death row appeals continue to take longer?

I was watching a documentary on Ted Bundy last night. He was convicted in 1979 and executed in 1989. Several people involved were complaining about how long it took to execute him.

Today the time between sentencing and execution can take 20 to 30 years or even more. My state does not have the death penalty, but a direct appeal usually takes about one year and a post conviction habeas corpus case takes about three years from circuit court to final disposition at the Supreme Court.

Let’s assume that in a death case, we double that time to more carefully look at the issues. We are at 8 years. A federal habeas under the AEDPA should be relatively quick as the bar for relief is so high. Let’s say that takes one year and the Court of Appeals takes another year. We are at 10.

Why does it take 20 to 30? What is going on? And although this may turn into a debate about the death penalty, and that’s fine, maybe we could keep it to a minimum. My take is that I support the death penalty in theory, but its applicability in the United States whereby death, if it comes, is 20 to 30 years later is really silly and takes away any deterrent effect the penalty may have.

It can take 10 years if all parties want to settle the issue quickly. If one of the parties expects he won’t like the final answer, 10 years can turn into 20 or 30. You can get a long string of “we’re not ready yet, raincheck?” that lengthen the process and courts will err on the side of too much time rather than too little in a death penalty case. That and the judicial system has issues, especially related to incentives.

IANAL, nor an expert on how appeals work with regards to the death penalty, but I have to suspect that the reason for the lengthy appeal process* is the finality of an execution. If a convicted felon is sentenced to life (or just a very long term), there’s always the chance that new evidence can lead to a new, successful appeal of the conviction (and this does, in fact, happen with some frequency). If the convicted felon has been executed, it’s too late for any further appeals.

  • Assuming it’s there; can you provide some links to support your claim that “Today the time between sentencing and execution can take 20 to 30 years or even more”?

Pro bono organizations may have grown more sophisticated in their use of post-conviction procedure and more thorough in their investigations of defendants’ backgrounds and their review of the trial record. The litigation over execution methods has led to considerable delays as well.

And that is part of the three years in my state post-conviction habeas cases. If my guy is doing life, and I ask for more time, I’m not pissing around, I am giving him the best chance. If I ask for more time, that is more time for him behind bars. So even if the judge thinks I am dragging my feet, hey, the client is the one losing.

In death penalty states, one would think that judges know that delays only mean delays in the sentence. So, if I am dragging my feet, the client is winning. The judge should not allow delays without good cause.

Besides the other reasons stated, death penalty trials are typically *very *shoddily done, which results in lots of materiel for future appeals.

The point of a death penalty trial is to pick an easily convicted person and put on a show of being “tough on crime”; so there’s no real effort to do anything but get a conviction by any means necessary, with no concern as to whether it will stick. So you get obvious dishonesty and railroading on the part of the prosecution, and the most incompetent possible defense.

Being willing to commit the kind of crime that the death penalty is reserved for, presupposes a perpetrator essentially completely immune to deterrent. That is to say, if such people were caught in the act and informed that they’d likely be a candidate for the death penalty if they continued, I think the majority of them would continue the crime anyway.
One of the reasons I would never kill someone is my fear of deterrent. It’s working, on me. But I was never going to kill anyone anyway. I’m the wrong audience, as it were.

The deterrent that will work on murderers is “you will fail to kill the person”. Until that is enacted, maybe some other strategies would be more profitable than pointless threats from the law.


Does this opinion apply to all trials or only death penalty ones? If not, why would there be high quality trials in cases which expose the defendant to 20 years or life in prison, but suddenly fail in their quality when death is involved?

Appeals take a long time even in non-death penalty cases. I was involved in a non-death penalty murder case that took almost 10 years to get to trial. Mostly because of pretrial motions and then appeals of those motions.

Because the purpose of appeals in DP cases is not to make sure the defendant is guilty and got a fair trial. It is to delay.

Guy gets convicted, appeal the conviction based on X. Higher state court turns it down. Appeal to the state supreme court. It gets turned down. Appeal to federal court. It gets turned down. Appeal to higher court. It gets turned down. Appeal to the Supreme Court. It gets turned down. Start again, based on Y. Lather, rinse, repeat. When that runs out, find somebody, usually conveniently dead, and argue that he actually did it.

Some judges automatically grant stays in any DP case. I don’t have a cite, but I read that Thurgood Marshall told his law clerks that, if anyone applied for a last-minute stay of execution, to automatically grant it without even asking. Judge Rose Byrd in California was notorious for ruling against the DP no matter what.

We need to limit appeals. One appeal to your state supreme court, one to federal court. When it gets turned down, or if the appeal fails, you’re done.


Here’s the innocence list from the death penalty information center. Those people who were sentenced to death but were later found innocent or similar.

Note the large number of people who served 20+ or 30+ years on death row.

Yeah, speed it up. No innocent person is going to get murdered by the state if we do that. :dubious:

Note that DNA testing has overturned a lot of convictions. What new forensic test might come out that will overturn a bunch more?

Way too many people get convicted due to being unable to afford a good lawyer. It takes a while for a person’s case to come to the attention of a good pro bono legal organization. There’s just so many to consider. Seems like that should have been the job of the justice system in the first place.

If you could guarantee, or even provide clear evidence, that the law was being applied fairly and without prejudice on a regular basis then your proposal would have some merit. But since the evidence is overwhelming that the law isn’t being applied fairly, especially with respect to the death penalty, then limiting appeals would seem to ensure a misapplication of justice. Let’s get a level playing field before we worry about the time it takes to implement the death penalty.

Self selection; if the intent is a fair trial then it won’t be made a death penalty case in the first place. The death penalty is about putting on a show; it has no practical value. The point of the death penalty is to pick an easy target and ram a conviction through in order to wave the “tough on crime” flag.

Therefore every aspect of the legal system plummets in quality as soon as the death penalty becomes involved, because it’s all fundamentally a show trial. It’s all done for the spectacle, not to determine guilt or innocence.