Why do Inmates go on Death Row?

This week, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was scheduled to execute the first federal inmate in over 17 years, but a federal judge postponed it because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Just three days ahead of convicted killer Daniel Lewis Lee’s execution, Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson from the Southern District of Indiana sided with the family of Lee’s victims, who requested the delay. Lee was convicted of killing a family of three.

Lee’s death was supposed to start a new era for the death penalty in the United States, as three other men who have been convicted of murdering children are scheduled to be executed in the next few weeks. 

Last year, President Trump’s administration announced that they would be reinstating the death penalty for federal inmates after just three federal inmates had been executed since 1988 when a 16-year moratorium was lifted. However, a series of court decisions delayed the scheduled execution dates.

Even though the federal government hasn’t really been executing inmates for the past few decades, many of the states have continued using capital punishment despite the controversy surrounding the substances needed to perform a lethal injection.

All of this leads me to today’s blog topic: Why do inmates go on death row?

In this blog post I will cover the following topics:

  • Why are inmates on death row for so long?
  • How many inmates are on death row?
  • Can you visit prisoners on death row?

Why are inmates on death row for so long?

Inmates are sentenced to death row when they have been convicted of taking the life of at least one other human being. Currently, all of the prisoners on death row in the United States have been convicted of murder.

However, in our nation’s history, the death penalty has been used in cases of rape, specifically against black defendants with white victims. 

When the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, they did leave open the possibility of someone receiving the sentence for a crime other than murder, like rape or armed robbery.

But, they soon changed their position and ruled that the death penalty can’t be applied in a case where a death did not occur. There is still a question about whether or not the death penalty can be used in crimes against the government, like treason or espionage.

Inmates who are sentenced to death are usually in prison for two decades or more before they are executed. The reason inmates are on death row for so long is because they must have the opportunity to exhaust all appeals before the death sentence is carried out.

Many individuals who have been sentenced to death have claimed to be innocent. And, when DNA evidence became available in the United States in the early 1990s, more than 20 death row inmates ended up being exonerated and released.

Other inmates on death row have had their convictions overturned based on prosecutorial misconduct, weak cases with lack of evidence, and ineffective assistance of counsel. The Death Penalty Information Center also has a list of ten inmates who they claim were “executed but possibly innocent.”

Because there have been people sentenced to death row who have later been revealed to be innocent, some believe our system should not be swift to execute.

How many inmates are on death row?

As of January 1, 2020, there were 2,620 inmates on death row in the United States. However, that number does change regularly because of new convictions, appellate decisions overturning convictions, sentence commutations, and deaths (through execution or other causes).

At the federal level, there were 61 inmates on death row as of July 2019. And, the United States federal government has executed a total of 37 people since 1927. 

In the military, there are currently four people on death row, and they have executed 135 people since 1916.

Twenty-two states have abolished capital punishment, but there are still thousands sitting on death row in the remaining 28 states.

The states that have abolished the death penalty are: Michigan,  Wisconsin, Maine, Minnesota, Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, Iowa, West Virginia, North Dakota, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware, Washington, New Hampshire, and Colorado.

The death penalty has also been abolished in Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, the United States Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The totals for states with inmates on death row are as follows:

  • Alabama 172
  • Arizona 116
  • Arkansas 29
  • California 737
  • Florida 339
  • Georgia 41
  • Idaho 8
  • Indiana 8
  • Kansas 10
  • Kentucky 27
  • Louisiana 70
  • Mississippi 41
  • Missouri 29
  • Montana 2
  • Nebraska 12
  • Nevada 76
  • New Hampshire 1
  • North Carolina 143
  • Ohio 138
  • Oklahoma 46
  • Oregon 35
  • Pennsylvania 128
  • South Carolina 37
  • South Dakota 1
  • Tennessee 51
  • Texas 224
  • Utah 7
  • Virginia 2
  • Wyoming 0

Can you visit prisoners on death row?

The answer to this question depends on the facility. Most prisons do allow their inmates on death row to visit with family and friends who they had a relationship with prior to being convicted of their crimes.

In other words, you can’t just start a pen pal relationship with a serial killer who is on death row – or anyone else convicted to death – and then go to the prison and visit them. 

All visitors must be approved in advance by the Federal Bureau of Prisons or the state’s Department of Corrections before they are allowed to visit an inmate. 

Some facilities require that their death row inmates only receive non-contact visits, but there are some prisons who do allow those on the row to have contact visits with close family.

If you have questions about a specific prison’s visiting rules, all you need to do is find the facility in the PrisonInsight locator to get more detailed visiting information.

Do you think we should abolish the death penalty? Let us know in the comments below.


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