Convicted killers executed in 1999 spent 13 months longer on death row than those put to death in 1998, as legislation and court rulings to speed appeals clashed with growing concern over possibly erroneous verdicts, a federal study shows.
The 98 prisoners executed in 1999 — the most in the United States since 1951 — were on death row an average of 11 years and 11 months, up sharply from 10 years and 10 months for the 68 inmates put to death in 1998, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report released Sunday.
By contrast, the 1998 figures had reflected a decline of three months from the 1997 average.
“It’s hard to look at a single year snapshot and evaluate trends in the length of time on death row,” said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, a group critical of how capital punishment is administered.
Dieter said two conflicting forces ironically might have both worked to lengthen the average death row time of inmates executed in 1999: the decade-old efforts by state legislatures, Congress and the Supreme Court to shorten the appeals process, and the recently emerging “higher intolerance for error among the public.”
Six states — Illinois, Nebraska, Arizona, North Carolina, Maryland and Indiana — have death penalty studies under way, Dieter noted.
Proposals in Congress would widen the availability of DNA genetic testing for defendants in capital cases and federal and state legislation has been proposed to call a moratorium in executions. “There was nothing like these just two years ago,” Dieter said.
On Thursday, President Bill Clinton granted a six-month reprieve to convicted murderer Juan Raul Garza, who was set to become on Tuesday the first federal inmate executed in 37 years. Clinton wanted to allow more time for study of racial and geographic disparities in federal death sentences.
Governors have delayed executions to allow more DNA testing, including one postponed this year by Gov. George W. Bush in Texas, which on Thursday set a record for most executions by one state in a single year with 40.
On the other hand, Dieter said, efforts to reduce death row waiting time may have contributed to lengthening the average time for those executed in 1999.
“When you pass laws to speed up cases, the first inmates executed are the ones who’ve been on death row the longest,” Dieter said. He noted that in 1999, Ohio had its first execution since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, and this year Tennessee had its first.
Some states that regularly top the annual execution totals have reduced death row time substantially — Virginia is around five years now, Dieter said.
“It could take a few years to sort out which trend prevails,” Dieter said. “The efforts during the ‘90s to speed appeals may finally take hold, but the growing public skepticism about the verdicts in some cases and about the death penalty in general may prove strong enough to move in the other direction. And the studies under way could have a major effect.”
This year’s total executions, now at 84 with perhaps one or two more possible, will not reach the peak seen in 1999, the largest total since 105 in 1951.
All 98 executed last year were men, including 61 whites, 33 blacks, two American Indians and two Asians. Eight whites and one American Indian also were classified as Hispanic, which is not a racial category.
Lethal injection killed 94 inmates. Three died by electrocution and one from lethal gas.
Texas also led the states last year with 35 prisoners executed, followed by Virginia with 14, Missouri with nine, Arizona with seven and Oklahoma with six.
Last year, 272 new prisoners were sent to death row in the federal system and the 32 states that have the death penalty, down from 285 in 1998, the bureau found.
There were 3,527 prisoners on death row at the end of 1999, of whom 55.2 percent were white, 42.9 percent were black and remainder other races. Those of Hispanic origin comprised 10.2 percent of the total.
The year-end total included 50 women, up from 35 in 1990.
The youngest death row inmate was 18 while the oldest was 84; the average age was 37.