Examples of Prisoners With Extraordinarily Long Stays on Death Row

Death Row Time On Death Row

Examples of Prisoners With Extraordinarily Long Stays on Death Row

Long stays on death row have become increasingly common: the Fair Punishment Project estimated in March 2017 that about 40% of condemned prisoners have spent more than 20 years on death row.1


Carey Dean Moore spent 38 years on death row by the time of his execution in 2018. He was sentenced to death in 1980 for the murders of two cab drivers. In 1991, a federal appellate court reversed his death sentence and sent his case back for resentencing. He was again resentenced to death. After this second death sentence, a federal district court again overturned his death sentence and that ruling was affirmed by a panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. However, an en banc review by the entire 8th Circuit in 2003 overturned the panel decision and reinstated Moore’s death sentence. The Nebraska Supreme Court, on its own motion, stayed Moore’s execution in 2007 because of concerns about the constitutionality of electrocution, the sole method of execution authorized in Nebraska at the time. The Court ultimately declared electrocution unconstitutional, and the state then adopted lethal injection as its method of execution. Following Nebraska’s legislative repeal of the death penalty and the referendum vote rescinding the repeal, controversy over the source of Nebraska’s lethal injection drugs and the state’s untried 4-drug protocol, and Moore’s waiver of further appeals, Moore was executed on August 14, 2018.


Brandon Jones was executed in Georgia on February 3, 2016, just short of his 73rd birthday. He was the oldest person executed in Georgia in the state’s history. When he was executed, he was believed to have served the longest time between conviction and execution of any condemned prisoner in U.S. history. Jones was originally convicted and sentenced to death in October 1979, meaning he served about 36 years and four months between first being sentenced to death and execution. His initial conviction had been overturned because jurors had consulted a Bible during deliberations. He was retried in 1997 and again convicted and sentenced to death.


Michael Selsor was first sentenced to death in Oklahoma on January 30, 1976, for murder and was imprisoned for about 36 years and 3 months prior to his execution on May 1, 2012. Although his sentence had been reduced to life when Oklahoma’s death penalty was overturned in 1976, he was re-sentenced to death for the same crime in 1998. When asked in an interview about the difference between the death penalty and life without parole, Selsor said, “The only difference between death and life without parole is one you kill me now, the other one you kill me later. There’s not even a shred of hope. There’s no need to even try to muster up a seed of hope because you’re just gonna die of old age in here….With the death penalty sentence I’m entitled to more appeals — the government’s gonna pay for it. I don’t have to do it myself if I don’t have the money for a lawyer which I don’t have. Instead I’m relying on public defenders to do my appeals.” See the video of the interview.2


Manuel Valle was executed in Florida on Sept. 28, 2011. The Supreme Court delayed his execution for several hours, and Justice Breyer dissented from the decision allowing it to go forward. Breyer wrote that Valle’s 33 years on death row were a cruel and unusual punishment: “I have little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death.” Ultimately, he indicated that the goals of due process and timely executions may be irreconcilable: “It might also be argued that it is not so much the State as it is the numerous procedures that the law demands that produce decades of delay. But this kind of an argument does not automatically justify execution in this case. Rather, the argument may point instead to a more basic difficulty, namely the difficulty of reconciling the imposition of the death penalty as currently administered with procedures necessary to assure that the wrong person is not executed.” (Valle v. Florida, No. 11-6029, Sept. 28, 2011).


Texas executed Rolando Ruiz on March 7, 2017. Ruiz’s lawyers had urged the Court to consider the constitutionality of subjecting him to extended solitary confinement on death row. They wrote, “At this point, a quarter-century has elapsed since Mr. Ruiz committed a contract murder in 1992, two days after he turned twenty years old. Mr. Ruiz has lived for over two decades under a death sentence, spent almost twenty years in solitary confinement, received two eleventh-hour stays of execution, and has received four different execution dates.” As in Valle’s case, the execution was delayed for several hours as the Supreme Court considered whether to review the issue. Ultimately, the Court declined to consider the claim and permitted the execution to go forward. Justice Breyer dissented, saying, “Mr. Ruiz argues that his execution ‘violates the Eighth Amendment’ because it ‘follow[s] lengthy [death row] incarceration in traumatic conditions,’ principally his ‘permanent solitary confinement.’ I believe his claim is a strong one, and we should consider it.” Justice Breyer noted that the Court has had “serious objections” to extended solitary confinement dating back to In re Medley in 1890, when the Court, “speaking of a period of only four weeks of imprisonment prior to execution, said that a prisoner’s uncertainty before execution is ‘one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected.’” He also quoted fellow Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in 2015 urged the court to consider the constitutionality of extended solitary confinement.


Gary Alvord, a Florida prisoner who at the time of his death had spent more years on death row than any other condemned prisoner in the country, died on May 19, 2013, of natural causes. Alvord was 66 years old and had been sentenced to death for murder almost 40 years before, on April 9, 1974. He suffered from schizophrenia and had no close family. In the time Alvord spent on death row, 75 others were executed in Florida, many of whom spent half as long on death row as Alvord did. Alvord faced execution at least twice, but his severe mental illness prevented the execution from being carried out. In 1984, he was sent to a state hospital to receive treatment for his psychiatric condition, but doctors refused to treat him, citing the ethical dilemma of making a patient well enough so he can be killed. Alvord’s final appeal expired in 1998.3


Viva Leroy Nash, the oldest person on death row in the U.S., died of natural causes on death row in Arizona on February 12, 2010 at the age of 83. He was deaf, nearly blind, confined to a wheelchair and suffering from dementia and mental illness. He had been imprisoned almost continually since he was 15. He was sentenced to death in 1983.4


Alabama on April 19, 2018, executed 83-year-old Walter Moody, the oldest person and only octogenarian put to death in the United States since executions resumed in 1977. Moody’s execution stemmed from his 1996 conviction for the murder of a federal judge. Moody’s execution came in the midst of a growing number of executions of senior citizens. In 23 years of executions between 1977 and the close of the 20th century, only ten prisoners aged 60 or older were executed. Forty-five were executed between January 2010 and June 2019, 23 since 2015 alone.

Sources

[1] R. McCray, 40 Years Awaiting Execution,” Slate, March 72017.

[2] J. Rushing, Interview with a death row inmate,” Al Jazeera English, May 10, 2012; Photo cred­it: Al Jazeera English.

[3] D. Sullivan, Nation’s longest serv­ing death-row inmate dies in Florida,” Tampa Bay Times, May 212013.

[4] Associated Press, Feb. 142010.